Articles

Stephen Ratcliffe's Hamlet

In the early 1990s, Phillip Foss and Charles Bernstein coedited a special double issue of Tyuonyi ostensibly addressing contemporary tendencies in late twentieth-century poetry.To do so, they distributed a short survey asking participants to address what they called “patterns, contexts and time,” shaping (sharpening?) a praxis of the present by investigating the social and political factors influencing (both positively and negatively) tendencies in contemporary writing. In response to the question “What patterns, if any, do you see developing that are presently influencing habits of reading or readership within poetry?” Stephen Ratcliffe curiously addressed his contemporary scene by invoking none other than William Shakespeare: “The writing of today that most engages my attention reminds me of Shakespeare’s plays; one doesn’t so much want to ask ‘What is the meaning?’ but rather ‘Where does the meaning lie?’ — which is to say, ‘How does the work make meaning?’”

I’m immediately reminded of a dictum adduced by the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben that “the contemporary … must firmly hold his gaze on his own time,” in order to stare squarely into darkness — to face the aporias, the crucial absences that all but define one’s contemporary scene (despite the glare of the popular, the fashionable — the bellicose glare of what comes to stand, for better or worse, for an age and our participation in it). For Ratcliffe, however, Shakespeare offers the possibility to read what a text does rather than what it says — to stare into the darkness of meaning in order to meditate more intensely on how it works. He writes that Shakespeare’s words “send a current my way, through the ear by way of the syllable, whose sense so to speak won’t hold still, isn’t easily tamed, caged or made in any way to fit the pigeon-hole paraphrase would set to trap it, chew it up, digest away the play.” Shakespeare, then, is Ratcliffe’s closest contemporary, for he is precisely the poet (to use Agamben’s terminology) who knows how to see this obscurity — “who is able to write dipping his pen in the obscurity of the present.” 

Ratcliffe’s writing on Shakespeare in Tyuonyi is roughly coeval with the sustained meditations on sound-shape and sonic visuality in Listening to Reading in which he invokes an oft-cited Wittgensteinian text: “Do not forget that a poem, even though it is composed in the language of information, is not in the language-game of giving information.” In Listening to Reading, Ratcliffe reminds us that language is only what it says by virtue of what it does — meaning made tangible (however temporarily) by the confluence of acoustic, visual, and intellective interplay; which is to say that the best writing doesn’t shrink from blatant, shrill, conspicuous meaning-making but rather asserts itself as crafted, material object next to what it says. This is precisely the manner by which Louis Zukofsky made Shakespeare his contemporary: in his massive critical statement Bottom: On Shakespeare, Zukofsky reminds us that Shakespeare’s characters are both actors and words on the page, words that can outperform their speaking counterparts even in what they don’t say.

Ratcliffe’s Reading the Unseen: (Offstage) Hamlet (Counterpath Press, 2010) also begins with the mystery of Shakespeare’s characters, but where Zukofsky’s language “sees,” Ratcliffe’s is unseen — felt somatically (often deeply) through the interplay of senses. The book’s claims are humble and in some ways totally conspicuous, but its conclusions are much larger than they purport to be. Here’s the thesis: while we’re not always cognizant of the fact in the theater, the majority of “action” in Hamlet happens offstage, in and as language, through dialogue, anecdote, and aside; in fact, virtually all of the major plot-advancing action takes place through description, in the character’s speeches about absent actions: King Hamlet’s murder, Ophelia’s death, Hamlet’s voyage to England, et cetera. Which is to say that when we watch Hamlet, we find ourselves watching speech (or better, watching our minds seeing what they’re told to see). As such, Ratcliffe concludes that Hamlet performs, sometimes blatantly, how words can be entirely present while absconding their own materiality in the totally absent center of meaning-making. As such, “‘Words, words, words’ (2.2.192) in these speeches make physically absent things imaginatively ‘present’ … they ‘show’ us action we don’t actually see; how what is concealed from us (thus unseen, unknown) is essential both to [Hamlet] and to our lives in this world …” (xi–xii). Which is to say, finally, that words “see” what is unseen; they paint for us absent action and bring to life (imaginatively) language in our heads while somehow retreating into their own materiality (or lack thereof). So, for Ratcliffe, “words … are what Hamlet itself is ultimately about” (52).

It’s a brilliant thesis, hard won by Ratcliffe’s particular brand of obsessive close reading, but what makes it truly masterful is how it too, layer upon layer upon layer, rehearses how language actually works. While the book is ostensibly about offstage action (just as language has a determinate content), “there is more to it than meets the eye, and ear too for that matter” (30). While this book is certainly about Shakespeare, it is also just as much not about Shakespeare (in a prototypical avant-garde tradition); let’s say, for argument’s sake, that Reading the Unseen is an allegory for poetry, which makes Ratcliffe’s project, like Shakespeare’s before it, a book about words. Poetry is all about reading the unseen, making aurally-visible and visually-aural what is ostensibly not there — that poetry (and here Ratcliffe is actually talking about King Hamlet’s ghost) “may be taken to represent (“perform,” literally to embody) everything we cannot see (and thereby know) in this world” (3). Or better: poetry creates “a world made of words in which the eye sees only what the ear hears, thus sounding the limits of perception itself” (32). By staring squarely into the darkness of Ratcliffe’s text, we find what is most contemporary about its claims: that that which is most obscured by language is language itself.

Which is, of course, precisely the kind of all-too-obvious-and-thus-totally-brilliant thesis Ratcliffe makes about Shakespeare. But let’s abstract a bit further. I’d argue that Reading the Unseen joins the classics in the genre (say, Zukofsky’s Shakespeare, Olson’s Melville, and Duncan’s H.D.) in that every word applies too, and perhaps with greater precision, to his own work, making Reading the Unseen an occulted statement of poetics. Ratcliffe’s poetry practice is also about what goes unseen in “words, words, words,” in that much of what shows on the page is determined by so many exacting procedures unnoted in the text. For example, when I first met Ratcliffe his line lengths were often determined by the shape of the right-hand margin alone: using a stock version of Courier (because, according to Ratcliffe, the letter width is exactly the same for each character, including spaces), he’d slowly shape a wave in the margin until he was satisfied with its visual semblance. The problem, of course, is that such formalism is a bit Sisyphean, especially if the printer cannot exactly duplicate the margin in print. His work is often determined by these unseen constructs whether they register to the reader or not; for example, in Portraits & Repetition, Ratcliffe set himself a number of formal compositional constraints that, while absolutely crucial to what we see on the page, barely register to most readers: the book is 474 pages long (an arbitrary but exacting number as a handful of Ratcliffe’s books share a similar page length), five couplets a page, with line lengths determined solely by characters per line (sixty in the first line, fifty-seven in the second). At the end of the day, these formal restrictions (or permissions?) often mean very little to the reader of the poem, but they absolutely and irrevocably alter how the poems appear on the page. Ratcliffe wants to remind us that it is precisely the unseen labor of composition that most often disappears in the glossy reified book product as it’s prepared for publication, and in some ways his Reading the Unseen takes us back to the factory floor to underscore the poem’s status as made thing, clearly articulating the variety of unseen actions determining its hidden raison d’être.

Interestingly, this description applies as well to Ratcliffe’s unparalleled teaching style, a pedagogy in which each word’s unseen allusions are duly registered. As a result, his students learn to see language again as language — as it draws into itself as thing while pointing to the abstraction of meaning. So, yes, the poem does something — it shows us something — it has content. But it also has words and before words praxis. I once attended one of Ratcliffe’s classes where he and a particularly rambunctious student discussed the merits (and demerits) of Joyce’s lexicon in Finnegan’s Wake. “But most writers,” the student contended, “don’t obsess over language like Joyce.” “And that’s why,” Ratcliffe responded, “they’ll never be great poets.”

On 'Selected Days'

Spent matches in Bolinas. Photo by Jonathan Skinner.
Spent matches in Bolinas. Photo by Jonathan Skinner.

As a contribution to the occasion of Jacket2’s gathering of materials to celebrate the life & work of Stephen Ratcliffe, Robert Grenier proposed to ‘the Author Himself’ that the two of them might engage in a conversation addressing matters involved with (& otherwise concerning) his recently completed making of a (kind of) ‘selected poems’ (from the period) out of the six long ‘daily’ works (comprised of two triptychs, the first 3 of 474 pages, & the second 3 of 1,000 pages) begun in February 1998 & continuing into January 2011, to wit:

Portraits & Repetition, 2.9.98–5.28.99 (Sausalito, CA: The Post-Apollo Press, 2002)

REAL, 3.17.00–7.1.01 (Bolinas, CA: Avenue B, 2007)

CLOUD / RIDGE, 7.2.01–10.18.02 (Buffalo, NY: BlazeVOX [books], 2011)

HUMAN / NATURE, 10.19.02–7.14.05 [1]

Remarks on Color / Sound, 7.15.05–4.9.08

Temporality, 4.10.08–1.4.11 (Temporality continues, both as poems and photographs, on Ratcliffe’s blog)

Selected Days (forthcoming from Counterpath Press) itself consists of another progression of days/pages (made from a determination to take the last sequences of 15 poems from the first 3 works noted above + the last 30 sequences of poems from the second 3 works noted above, making a new sequence (& ‘time’) of 135 “DAYS” (pages)) — and it is the making of this ‘organization of materials’ (& related matters) which is spoken to, at some length (on the afternoon of Sunday, October 24, 2010) by the two of them, available here and here.

Duration’ is the heart of the matter — what is that (?), and how might that be addressed using Gertrude Stein’s distinction between “the time of the composition” & “the time in the composition” (in her 1926 lecture “Composition as Explanation”) (how are these ‘similar’ & how they are ‘different’) as a touchstone, as a means of engaging with Stephen Ratcliffe’s developing work …?

Herein ‘the Author Himself’ is provoked to provide his own account of …

Robert Grenier
Bolinas, California
October 29, 2010

Bob Grenier and Stephen Ratcliffe in Bolinas.
Robert Grenier and Stephen Ratcliffe in Bolinas.


 

1.  A reading/performance of the complete text of HUMAN / NATURE, in collaboration with five musicians (Dylan Bolles, Keith Evans, Michael Meyers, Edward Schocker, and Zachary Watkins) took place at UC Davis on June 6, 2008, and is available at PennSound.

On 'Portraits & Repetition'

Portraits & Repetition; Stephen Ratcliffe in the surf.
Portraits & Repetition; Stephen Ratcliffe in the surf at Bolinas.

Seeing/hearing/writing

The epigraph to Stephen Ratcliffe’s long poem Portraits & Repetition is a quotation from Gertrude Stein’s essay of the same title:

I began to wonder at at about this time just what one saw when one looked at anything really looked at anything. Did one see sound, and what was the relation between color and sound, did it make itself by description by a word that meant it or did it make itself by a word in itself.

Steve’s book is a painstaking exploration of or experiment in exactly what Stein might have meant by this. What happens when you look at anything, actually, over a period of time (say, a year and a quarter) every day, carefully, quietly, without many preconceptions as to what that thing is, and then at the same time (at the moment of looking, or just after — or as the moment of looking ) you are writing this, what happens, what do you see? Is there a sort of rhyme between the seen and the heard (what if you hear the sound of a bird at the same moment you are looking at a distant ridgeline in fog), and what about meaning — is ridge something seen, or something heard, is the word you are using at the same time you are seeing already always there in the seeing, and so the sound of the word must be there, in the experience of the seeing? Does the word ridge describe what you are seeing so that the seeing is primary and the word comes later as a label or tag pasted onto it, the experience of seeing (by now it is having seen), or does the word, the faint pre-thought of the word, come simultaneously with — or even before — the perception, so that there’s no perception without the word, and the word and the perception are the same or nearly the same? And then there is the writing of the word, later the reading of it, so that the experience in time is repeated in another time in another mind. A portrait repeated as the portrait as repetition is the portrait. As words are things seen and heard, and things seen and heard merge with words.

 

Shaping

Each day for a year and nearly three months — February 9, 1998–May 28, 1999 — Stephen Ratcliffe wrote a ten-line poem that consisted of five couplets, the first line of each couplet always three characters longer than a second line. The words of the couplets appear in their published form in Courier font (which looks like typewriter font), making the words appear oddly old-fashioned or anyway informal and handcrafted in a removed sort of way. The impression is that the words are not printed words in a book, that they are somehow more abstract and at the same time more intimate than words one usually sees in books or in online writing. Spacing between the word is not standard: there is extra space between words (I am not sure whether the extra spacing is uniform throughout), which makes the words oddly abstract: the eye doesn’t follow along quickly as in standard text, where you almost miss the fact that you are reading words, but here the words, in this font, call attention to themselves as words, abstractions, and the spacing seems to function to make the line visually come out to where it should come out, so that each of the poems in the book — 474 pages/poems in all — looks exactly like every other poem, each page visually — relentlessly — the same as every other page.

The title of each poem is the date on which the poem was written (7.4, 7.5, 7.6) but, given in this numerical way, the dates appear after a while as free-standing numerals, abstract numbers. They do not seem to stand for days on earth but rather as a mathematical series: somber, calm, laconic. Within each of the couplets there always appears a word in parenthesis. It might appear in the first or the second line, it might appear toward the beginning of the line or the middle or end, it might be underlined (Steve does not use — and typewriters did not have — italics). Sometimes the parenthetical word is not a word at all but a letter (p). The effect of the parenthetical word is to distance or interrupt whatever is going on in the line. Though there is occasional enjambment, the couplets appear to be independent of one another. None of the first lines is capitalized. There is punctuation, but none of the couplets ends with period. They are all double-spaced, giving each line and each word that much more attention as such.

The couplets seem to include a variety of subject matter that appears again and again as the long poem evolves, poem by poem, poem after poem. Fog over a ridge. A pot of flowers in a glass vase. Stones on a windowsill. Birdsong in the distance. A tobacco plant. Words, language, abstraction, relationship between objects in a visual field, the negative space between them. A couple, a man and a women, in intimate — if indefinite and entirely wordless — relationship. The sea in the distance and close up, swimming in the waves. Houses. People seen at a distance. Sky. Colors, the colors of anything, distinct from one another. It appears sometimes that there is drama or tension occurring, but one can’t be sure. A poem of words — but everything seems quiet, wordless.

Notice how I have used, in the above paragraphs, words like appears, seems, might, as if, sometimes. This is because the overall effect of this almost obsessively precise poem is one of indeterminacy. It is not clear what is being described or what is going on. Despite the luminous clarity of the words and images. 

shape of a blue flower in the window (same) which was placed
there by a second person, coming back from somewhere else

small white spider who tries to hide, right (angle) of stalk
below which drops of water are passing from unconcealment

Unconcealment, the Heideggerian word. From alethia, “truth” in Greek, which literally means “unconcealment.” This was Heidegger’s obsession (Ratcliffe’s?): that ordinary life, conventional experience, is concealed, that truth is an uncovering, an allowing of things to come forward to reveal themselves to us, as us, so that we can return to being embedded in the world rather than standing apart from it, as we think we do, and this makes of our experience a kind of aggression, in which we consume the world, as if we were not the world and could make use of it at will, for our purposes. The drops are literally concealed before they form as drops, they are not there at all to the person, to his sight, and then unconcealed when they appear as drops that can be seen as such, and named. Every moment of time’s concealed before it appears — every perception, every thought concealed in the moment before, then appears, then returns to concealment. Writing’s unconcealment. Which person writes what? When words appear and disappear, to reappear later (as reader’s experience), whose words are they? In this poem the words are no one’s, they come from nowhere, though at the same time the locations they depict are exact.

 

Contemplating

Something happens when you repeat. When you repeat and repeat and repeat. First, there’s the discipline involved. You do it, you repeat, whether you feel in the mood or not. The discipline, the commitment, replaces the sense of the personal, of what you want to be doing or saying. Whatever you want to be doing or saying — or whether or not you have anything you want to do or say — you repeat. There’s a system, a format, a procedure, a passion, a commitment. It, rather than you, carries the process along. Something happens that you would not have intended or desired. This is poetry as practice rather than as expression, or even as communication. It goes beyond the idea of skill or talent. It’s devotional, literally a devotional practice. Devotion to the art of poetry — and even more — or less — than this: devotion to this project, this pattern, this exploration of mind/heart/language. Because this is what emerges when you repeat this way, with this kind of relentless devotion. You find that you go deeper into what you are, how you are, how language is, how the poem is, what seeing, hearing, writing, thinking, being is than you ever would have been able to do if you based what you were doing on your skill intelligence knowledge personality.

I have devoted many years to contemplative practice and see that poetry is or could be the same thing. My own poetry is the same thing: contemplation, poetry as practice. And I feel a kinship to Steve’s project in poetry, which is the same as mine, and also the same as my Buddhist contemplative project. You do it; you simply do it with devotion. It sustains you for its own sake. You don’t write to publish. You publish to write. The writing as practice — as personal sense of meaning, as salvation — is the thing. And the community of friendship and support (not only with one’s contemporaries but beyond time, back through the generations of kindred writers you are in relation with, through your own practice, and forward to the generation of writers/readers now and yet to come). Writing that is both more and less than communication.

 

Indecipherable realism

The poet is in his house writing. It is silent, he is alone. A lonely quiet place, not in a city, in a small town, on a quiet street, no traffic, no street noise, no one around. Wind outside, ocean in the distance. Clouds. Grey sky. A garden — simple, not lush. The poet has lived in this house many years by now, the same walls, same floor, same view. He is methodical in his habits, arises every morning same time, goes outside, comes back in, writes. Predawn. Sees, hears, thinks, remembers: writes words. Once a word is written it is different from the moment before it is written: the word is different, the experience of the word is different. Life is different.

This difference then falls away, and now there’s an inner impulse, a longing, a sense of grasping or groping, then there is another word written (a word arising to hand and ear, to mind or heart) and the experience of writing, of being about to write, of having written, and then writing again, begins again. The words come out of the quiet. They come out of the long habit of having seen, heard, felt, these same things in a former time that rhymes with this time, as echo. In the process of writing (daily writing, in a strict form, which makes the time seem to be the same yet different on any given day — as any other day, the same and also different in its slight variations, no day repeats any other day, no perception — writing of the same tobacco plant, the same bird sound, of invisible bird, far away, the same sea seen from the same window, the same picture on the same wall, but each day slight variations) each perception, each memory, each word, mixes with every other perception, word, memory, and in the depth of the quiet there’s an unfolding of time and space as the present moment of writing, as the present instance of perception, as sound becomes sight, sight sound, as selfhood, personhood, merges with perception, with memory, with feeling, each perception, object, memory, in relation to every other perception, object, memory, so that the shifting relationships condition the next experiences the next words, and the strict form holds it all in a kind of constantly shifting stasis, just as the form of night/day, life/death, man/woman, word/silence, sky/earth holds the life we are living in place, provides a format for its going on. The closer you look, the more intimate the experience of all this is, the more indecipherable it becomes. The more real it becomes. It is relentless.

 

Decipherable realism

5.28

upper left corner of table (surface) slanted below the sill,
composition of yellow and pink in various stages of decay

man walking around the corner of the house adjacent to color
above which cloud brushes against the ridge, (assumption)

(part) missing, curve of landscape in the painting analogous
to presence of the person who witnessed it but isn’t here

edge of tobacco plant leaf after which (another) drop falls,
all but illegible ‘scrawl’ that can in fact be deciphered

unidentifiable trills of notes from somewhere beyond cypress
(single) instead of traffic, image of grey sky above city

Outside, the man is walking around a corner of the house; inside, the table is slanted below the sill; in the distance, a cloud brushes against the ridge. Which order of reality, which geographic feeling (domestic scene inside the room; man walking around outside the house; cloud in distant sky) do we focus on, and are they different orders of reality, different spaces, places, experiences, to be carefully distinguished one from the other, so we “know where we are,” or are they in fact one flat (or infinitely deep) plane on which all this takes place simultaneously (in perception, in language, as consciousness)? A person witnesses this, but is no longer here: time has passed, is constantly passing (in the silence you can notice this; with too much noise it happens anyway but you don’t notice), the person of this moment is never here the next, everything passing from concealment to unconcealment then back to concealment simultaneously on one flat or infinitely deep plane. The drops falling from tobacco plant leaves are writing just as much as this that I am doing now is writing or the former writing of Stephen Ratcliffe (by now more than ten years formerly) is writing: they write a meaning, as much as these words write a meaning. The meaning “can in fact be deciphered”? But not explained, perhaps. It can’t be in prose. Its notes are “unidentifiable trills”; its image is “grey,” and the person who witnesses it isn’t here (as you read these words, no longer here).

5.28 (last of 474 poems)

figure across the field against grey background, behind whom
feeling of a pink-white rose fills shape of window (form)

(that) is motion of green leaves on a branch wind approaches
and/or leaves, example imagined before it actually occurs

pale yellow petal falling to a table on the left, which (is)
acoustic action continued as the listener turns toward it

subject standing in front of crack in rock beyond which blue
(position) of noon, angle of thought coming toward viewer

surface of ridge below cloud (c) above which horizontal line
of final action, landscape leaning against plane of glass

“Feeling” of a pink-white rose: not seeing the rose or smelling it: feeling it. Or perhaps no one is feeling it but the rose, in being unconcealed, produces or is a feeling. A figure — which maybe is a person — is there, in the background (rose in foreground?), appearing against a grey backdrop, very quietly, as a shape, a form, rather than a subjectivity, a personality. (Person as part of the field, figure in a landscape.) Leaves on trees moving in the wind (or leaves leaving?) but this isn’t actual — it is imagined by a subject before it happens, and does happen then in another moment (the next moment, the previous?). Inside (we were before this outside? Or are we inside and outside at the same time? Or is there any “we” at all, as reader, as writer, as person, to be anywhere, are “we” no longer, as “we” imagine “ourselves” to be, the central focus of any writing, any thinking, any perceiving, but just that perceiving is going on and “we” or some figure in the landscape, is present, part of the general scene) … inside, a pale yellow petal falls. It is so quiet in here you can hear the petal falling when you turn toward it, or is the falling of the petal contingent on your turning toward it, it falls when and because you turn toward it, your movement having jarred the table so that the petal falls, making a sound, but can you hear the sound? The rock-hard sense of your identity then cracks open: you see blue sky opening through the crack, for the first time you can feel a thought coming toward you from a distance, the thought is a cloud above the ridge, it is seeing itself, the final line of a poem you have been writing for more than a year and now (it suddenly occurs to you, quietly, and without emotion, but with a certainty) the poem is finished, landscape like something flat and contained leaning against the plane of glass out which you are looking, a thick sheaf of pages full of uniform black lines of words on white.

Stephen Ratcliffe’s '[where late the sweet] BIRDS SANG'

Or, writing through Shakespeare’s sonnets

Stephen Ratcliffe at line break. Photo by Linda Russo.

Different modes of erasure

In recent years, a number of artists and poets have developed the gesture of erasing a text and publishing the result of such erasures on the text. Jen Bervin, a poet and an artist in the United States, recently erased parts of The Niagara Book by W. D. Howells, Mark Twain, Nathaniel Shaler, and others, with tippex allowing some of the words of the original text to appear. In his last show at Galerie Laurent Godin in Paris in 2010, Claude Closky has shown pages of a novel over which each word had been crossed out with black pencil except the article “la” whenever it appeared, thus creating a succession of “la,” which read like a hummed tune.[1] The young artist Jérémie Bennequin has engaged in the process of erasing Marcel Proust’s A la recherche du temps perdu: he blots out with a rubber the copies of Gallimard’s edition of Proust’s novel.

These different modes and forms of erasure could all be linked to one of their predecessor whose figure looms large: Marcel Broodthaers’s erasure of Stéphane Mallarmé’s Un coup de dés jamais n’abolira le hasard, written in 1897 and published in the journal Cosmopolis and subsequently republished posthumously by Gallimard in 1914.[2] The Belgian artist covered the exact lines of the poem with black stripes, thus erasing the text but keeping Mallarmé’s exact typographical layout. Broodthaers subtitled his work “an image,” turning the now unreadable poem into a work of art. As Benjamin Buchloh notes: “The black stripes worked simultaneously as erasures and as a factor of heightened visual impact and spatial presence.”[3]

Three modes of erasure emerge from this quick overview: 1) covering partially or entirely (with stripes or correction fluid) 2) crossing out with pencil 3) rubbing out.

 

(Re)covering the text in the making

Stephen Ratcliffe’s [where late the sweet] BIRDS SANG is a writing through of Shakespeare’s sonnets, which seems to have been partially erased.[4] For each sonnet, only a few words appear where they appeared in Shakespeare’s texts, so that it seems that the rest of Shakespeare’s poem was deleted. They seem to proceed from one of the three modes of erasures given above.

 
Front cover of
[where late the sweet] BIRDS SANG.

In fact, the gaunt poems derive from a process of selection which is not explained in a preface, a statement, or a blurb at the back of the book but appears instead on the cover of the book, thus making it possible to recover the making of the text: under the title and against a backdrop of faded purple, the couplet of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 73 appears in purple, two words singled out by a white stripe. Below the couplet, a white stripe appears like a scratch or a stripe of tippex. The back cover is even more explicit: Shakespeare’s sonnet appears in its entirety, a few words are singled out by white stripes, and the title, taken from line 4, appears clearly, so that instead of covering the text with white stripes, the purple behind the text seems to have been rubbed out: the text is recovered from a promise of disappearance.


Back cover of
[where late the sweet] BIRDS SANG. 

It follows then that Ratcliffe’s poems reverse the modes of erasure described above: while Broodthaers used black stripes to erase Mallarmé’s text to make it even more sculptural on the page, Ratcliffe’s cover — designed by Leslie Scalapino with Ratcliffe’s approval — uses white stripes to select the text and highlight some of Shakespeare’s words. Yet, the text of the book features the selected words only. Unlike Bervin’s, Bennequin’s, or Closky’s projects, the only trace of the palimpsest here lies on the cover, in our memories and in the position of the words on the page.

The erasures that the text seems to present are in fact selections. As he explains, Ratcliffe circled or underlined the words in yellow (on the first page only) and pencil (on subsequent pages), but did not erase the rest, as Bervin did with The Niagara Book or Bennequin with Proust’s novel. In the end, much of the text is missing, but the process is different. Shakespeare’s lines were not covered, erased, or blotted out, as the manuscripts that Ratcliffe sent me demonstrate. They testify to the process and gestures of reading, such as penciling a text as one reads it. In other words, the signs left on his manuscripts signal the very movement of these poems, both as traces of the experience of reading and as readings in the making.


First page of
The Sonnets, underlined by Stephen Ratcliffe. Reprinted with kind permission.


Shakespeare’s Sonnet 8, as originally underlined by Stephen Ratcliffe. Reprinted with kind permission.

As can be seen on manuscript pages of Shakespeare’s sonnets underlined by Ratcliffe, the process leading to the poem is one which doesn’t entail an abrasive gesture of deletion (Bennequin), or of crossing a text out (Closky), or a gentle albeit definitive and somewhat violent act of applying tippex (Bervin). It should be noted that Jen Bervin’s gestures over textual materials are diverse. While she erased part of the text in Niagara, she partly covered the lines of The Desert with blue thread that she wove on the pages of the eponymous book. Nets, her version of the Shakespearean sonnets, could feel close to Ractliffe’s own version, yet central to the idea of Bervin’s project is that of a palimpsest: Shakespeare’s text is not covered; it is always already there or recovered by Bervin’s manipulations.[5]

In [where late the sweet] BIRDS SANG, the text is neither erased, in Broodthaers’s way, nor is it kept, in Bervin’s way. The relation between the cover of the book and the body of texts between the covers suggest that it is one reading of the sonnets, recuperating some of the effects of the sonnets, though such reading can never be substituted for the sonnets themselves. The sonnets have not disappeared; instead their intricacy is revealed in negative — as if in a photographic process — by making manifest what was only latent and not blatant at first view. For instance, the book unveils some of the networks of thematic subtexts as well as some of the phonic and graphic subtleties of the text, pushing the analysis a bit further than the usual points of interest in the rhymes for the eye, anaphoras, well-known figures of speech (polyptota and the like), or alliterations and assonances. One minor example of the highlighting of graphic and phonemic effects of Shakespeare’s sonnets figures in the end of Ratcliffe’s reading[6] of Sonnet 8:

          how one string

                     in

resembling

                     one, one          note

                                        being many, seeming

                                                                                 none”

Ratcliffe makes manifest the graphic and phonemic network of “in” and “ing,” but also the patterns of “one” found in “one,” “none,” and, anagrammatically, in “note.” When comparing this with Shakespeare’s sonnet, one realizes, though, that the poet operated deftly and didn’t for instance systematically emphasize all the occurrences of “one.”[7] Ratcliffe’s reading is one of uncovering because it leaves some of the obvious relations hidden. Moreover, Ratcliffe’s reading weaves other threads, suggesting that millions of other poems are contained in the density of Shakespeare’s text and that we hear all these poems at once, though they are never revealed explicitly. For instance, of the first two lines of the first sonnet Ratcliffe retains only “air” (from “fairest”) and “here” (“thereby”), thus doing away with the principle of selecting etymological roots or lexemes from the original words. Just as “air” is not related etymologically or morphologically to “fair,” “here” is unrelated to “thereby.” Ratcliffe exerts his exercised eye and ear[8] freely through Shakespeare’s poems, creating the conditions for the emergence of a new poem on the page and in the ear. This opening poem of his book is the infinitesimal design of a minimal manifesto, which I reproduce here as a single sentence, though it looks more disjunctive on the page: “air / here / as / memory / eye / -substantial / where / to / now / in / content / waste / be — / and.”

The creation of a sculpture on the page as well as in the air is Ratcliffe’s very poetics, as he has explained in his poem-essay “The Landscape (Body) of the Poem.”[9] Like Broodthaers’s Un coup de dés, Ratcliffe’s deconstruction heightens the architectural construction of the page, yet the sculpture is disjunctive and, paradoxically, in changing the spatial form of the sonnet, it does not annihilate Shakespeare’s word. This is what our close-reading and close-listening of Ratcliffe’s reinterpretation of Sonnet 130 will show.

 

Reinterpreting Sonnet 130 

The rest of this article is an altered version of part of “Living-with Shakespeare?,” an article published last year in Transatlantica, in which I study Harryette Mullen, Jen Bervin, and Stephen Ratcliffe’s readings of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 130 (paragraphs 32 to 36 concern Ratcliffe’s book). Ratcliffe’s reinterpretation of Sonnet 130 reads:

                                                              sun–
                    more
                  white, why
    air
                                   asked, red
                                               in
            some
               the breath that
                                    speak
                                                         pleasing sound
                        saw
                                         walks
                                        I think
                                                                         with

With his alteration of Sonnet 130, Ratcliffe refrains from seeing Shakespeare’s sonnet as an unalterable classic fixed in its rigid authority. The lines sculpt the page of [where late the sweet] BIRD SANG, allowing the sound of sense to bloom and drift in the explicit non-linearity of its texture. This text is therefore an elliptic and elided Sonnet 130.

Ratcliffe’s text could very well be an embodiment of Harold Bloom’s claim in The Anxiety of Influence that poetry is dwindling down to its death, since there seems to be virtually nothing left on the page.[10] Has poetry reached such a point of no return that it can only play with a blank page and a few meaningless, unrelated words? And is Shakespeare’s death so self-evident that the contemporary poet effectively kills Shakespeare’s poetry by way of obliteration, i.e. by an operation that empties the meaning of the formal body of the text while alienating its very soul?

Etienne Souriau defines ellipsis as “a lack […] which indicates that one or several words necessary for the perfect regularity of a grammatical construction, have been taken out from a sentence.”[11] Stephen Ratcliffe has done away with most of the texture of Shakespeare’s sonnet, keeping the words where they originally were in the line. This operation, which may be seen as a violent gesture against the sonnets — signaled by the dash at the end of the first line — adds elision to ellipsis. Indeed, in his reading of Sonnet 130, “hairs” (line 4) becomes “air” and “damasked” (line 5) is pared down to “asked.” Moreover, though Ratcliffe’s text keeps the fourteen lines of the original sonnet, its lines are separated by double spacing, which heightens the dispersion-effect of the poem: the sonnet is pulverized on the page.

What remains is precisely the trace and delineation of a minimal sonnet. Ratcliffe’s lines are inheritors of Mallarmé’s poetics of the spatial page, as well as direct contemporaries of Larry Eigner’s sculptural texts: by their rarefaction on the line, some of the words and syllables from Shakespeare’s sonnets are left to their vibration, just as our memory sometimes retains a few words from a text and allows them to echo. With the poetics of vibration, the text concentrates on the “breath” of the “mellifluous” voice Meres saw in Shakespeare’s “pleasing sound” (line 10). Indeed, the web of s, z, and w, the incessant echoes in wai, for instance, seem to turn this page into the mountain in the myth of Echo and Narcissus, where the reader/listener is literally lost as he listens to the sounds and the silence which constitute the space of troubled signification. From the lack of words and syntax, from ellipsis and elision, the poem creates a new texture of manifold collisions and interpolations without being able to come to completion. Questions, denoted by “why” and “asked,” are legion and call for a multivocal reading through which “some […] more” is demanded as a response to the reading process underlying the poem. Taken over by the sounds of the text, one must never forget to think about its texture, i.e. comprehend what is heard and what is seen (“saw,” line 11).

Through the twists and turns of its lines, this poem is also a text that tries to look for and find another type of sentence, one where the word does not have a semantic function only but has almost reached phonetic and graphic autonomy, as is well shown by the graphic recurrence of “ea” in “breath,” “speak” and “pleasing.” These act as rhymes for the eye within the text and bring forward what might have otherwise been overlooked when reading Shakespeare’s text as a whole. Suddenly the words of the text gain an aesthetic quality; in a movement akin to that of concrete poetry — though this poem is not concrete poetry — the poem goes beyond language and almost becomes a drawing. Shakespeare’s variegated complexities resulting from the copious tropes, the profusion of interconnected sounds and generous details, have been done away with. Should we then say that this amounts to killing Shakespeare’s texture or, even worse, his words and “sacred” thoughts, because one cannot face the timeless grandeur of his genius? Or should we look at literature from another mode altogether and see this text as a contingent homage to Shakespeare? Who could argue that if Shakespeare’s poetic arabesques are no longer explicitly apparent in Ratcliffe’s poem, Shakespeare’s text has been done away with? It seems, rather, that one could tentatively take up for Shakespeare’s rereading in the present Jacques Derrida’s words when considering the illusory end of Marxism: when the death of Marxism is being proclaimed, when Marx’s end is forecast, Marx comes back to haunt those who speak of his end.[12] I’d thus say that Ratcliffe’s text is much more a composition-with than a destruction of Shakespeare’s text. And, tellingly, “with” is the last word of Stephen Ratcliffe’s text: “I think / with.” The “I” of Shakespeare’s text comes back in Stephen Ratcliffe’s poem. Yet it is not the “I” of the tombstone, nor is it the “I” of a poet thinking of himself as Shakespeare’s voice. This “I” transforms Shakespeare’s in the present and becomes a polyphonic voice where the speakers of Ratcliffe’s text and of Shakespeare’s happen to be set in a dialogue pointing to the issue integral to contemporary poetry, as well as to Shakespeare’s Sonnet 15: that of the unassignable nature of “I.” Reading Ratcliffe’s text means that one travels with Shakespeare’s text, as a companion. Rather than killing or erasing Shakespeare, Ratcliffe’s text expresses the author’s desire to read Shakespeare, provided one reads my statement with Valéry’s anti-idealist stance in mind that “the imagination of desire only sees a corner — a favourable fragment of things … He who sees everything desires nothing and is afraid to move.”[13]

In “Shakespeare’s Memory,” Borges shows that possessing Shakespeare’s memory is purely and simply impossible, because the minute the narrator, or anyone, inherits it, he is a split subject with two memories, where the one blocks the other. The Faustian pact of wishing to know all of Shakespeare and be the voice of Shakespeare’s memory soon leads the main protagonist and narrator to wish to empty himself of “Shakespeare’s memory” and pass it on to someone else.[14] What Ratcliffe’s text suggests is that the desire for Shakespeare does not mean that one should try to speak for Shakespeare, but to try to allow Shakespeare’s text to be reread in the present (“air / here/ […] / now”) through a dialogue with his text, or portions thereof. It prompts us to read Sonnet 130 as an acoustic architecture as well as a drawing. It also asks that we account for the making of our reading.

 

[These are in-progress notes to a longer text on Ratcliffe’s practice to be published in a book devoted to Shakespeare read by American avant-garde and experimental writers. — VB]

 


 

1.  In French, “la, la, la” is the equivalent of “tra la la.”

2.   Marcel Broodthaers, Un coup de dés jamais n’abolira le hasard (Antwerp: Galerie Wide White Space, 1969).

3.  Benjamin Buchlow, “Lettres ouvertes, poèmes industriels,” in Broodthaers (Paris: Galerie Nationale du Jeu de Paume, 1992), 30.

4.  Stephen Ratcliffe, [where late the sweet]BIRDS SANG (Oakland: O Books, 1989). See also William Shakespeare, The Sonnets, ed. Katherine Duncan-Jones (The Arden Shakespeare, 1997). The term “writing through” refers to John Cage, whose texts are of importance to Ratcliffe. Yet Ratcliffe’s writing through is not governed by chance operations.

5.  See my analysis of the temporal dimensions of Nets at the very end of my article “Living-with Shakespeare? (Three American Experimental Poets’ Compositions with Shakespeare’s Sonnet 130),” Transatlantica 1/2010 (13 October 2010).

6.  Ratcliffe’s first selection differs from the final poem; see the image above of Ratcliffe’s underlined manuscript page.

7.  Shakespeare’s last six lines are: “Mark how one string, sweet husband to another, / Strikes each in each by mutual ordering, / Resembling sire, and child, and happy mother, / Who all in one, one pleasing note do sing: / Whose speechless song being many, seeming one, / Sings this to thee: ‘Thou single wilt prove none.’”

8.  First, Ratcliffe is a poet who pays extreme care to sounds. His theory of being attentive to the sounds and the shapes of writing is fully articulated in his book of essays Listening to Reading (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2000). Moreover, he wrote his doctoral dissertation on Thomas Campion and is fully versed in the language spoken and written by authors and composers of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Finally, Ratcliffe published a Shakespeare book (Reading the Unseen: (Offstage) Hamlet, Counterpath Press, 2009) about minimal off-stage action.

9.  Stephen Ratcliffe, “The Landscape (Body) of the Poem,” in Listening to Reading, 191–193.

10.  Harold Bloom, The Anxiety of Influence (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997).

11.  Etienne Souriau, Vocabulaire d’esthétique (Paris: PUF, 1990), 649–650.

12.  Jacques Derrida, Specters of Marx: The State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning, and the New International, trans. Peggy Kamuf (London: Routledge, 1994), 69.

13.  Paul Valéry, Œuvres, vol. 2, ed. Jean Hytier (Paris: Gallimard, 1960), 603.

14.  Jorge Luis Borges, “Shakespeare’s Memory” (1983), The Book of Sand and Shakespeare’s Memory (London: Penguin Books, 1998), 122–131.

Somatic poetics

From David Buuck's BARGE (Bay Area Research Group in Enviro-aesthetics)

The following is part essay, part proposition, part thinking in motion (provisional, unfinished, disruptive). It is a response to Patrick Durgin’s generous invitation in spring 2010 to address “somatics” in regards to recent writing practices and poetics. Through the following text I take excursions with various contemporaries. These excursions are not meant to be representative by any means (the following is not meant to be a definitive mapping of a field, manifesto, polemic, or ‘last word’) but the continuation of a discourse that has become visible to me in the past few years. All the propositions here are hopefully extendable. To many of them I owe my conversations with the Nonsite Collective — and to Rob Halpern, Eleni Stecopoulos, Amber DiPietra, David Wolach, Taylor Brady, and Robert Kocik in particular. And also to Daria Fain, CAConrad, Dorothea Lasky, Brenda Iijima, David Buuck, and Bhanu Kapil.

I dreamt we were susceptive to language

that care might be agency’s complement

and form never more than condition
passing as body

— Eleni Stecopoulos[1]

 

Somatic poetics as…

The body foregrounded by the poem’s content.

The body foregrounded by the poem’s form.

The body, as a form, coextensive with a (written) content.

The body, as a form, becoming written.

Or the body as a site of “material,” of information or content for the making of the poem.

The poem quivering “off-page” and on in this relation.

Or the body as a site whereof language becomes cited.

Or language as a site whereof the body becomes seen.

Or the body between non-site and site, a kind of shuddering caesura, a Shabbat or intervention into what is sensed.

Or the poem as that which makes visible the body as a place where cultural, political, social, moral, and economic forces converge and convolute becoming visible in their play.

 

Wetlands and marshes slow.
But my poems, like phynance
— this accumulation of waste —

I mean this, you and ‘the cranes
Like ships,’ they’re relentless
— targeting flows, pipelines —

Through which the silence, too,
Has slowed, tho it’s still refining
— me, I’m down to prewar levels.[2]

I think of Rob Halpern’s use of the line in many of his poems and essays. Where the line moves, and does not cease to move, because of the use of caesura, and compression, and radical enjambment (often the stanza would seem a container or mould into which Halpern is deliberately fitting the poem’s language and grammar, thereby over/determining its syntax). Also because of the use of hyphens/dashes that start and stop (like in Emily Dickinson, or more recently Leslie Scalapino and Rodrigo Toscano). This is a formal problem that extends cultural content, where movement resists the calcification of (poetic) language as a form of ideation, cultural capital, enunciation (‘voice’). The use of line in Halpern’s work also points back to the body — is therefore deictic. As if to say: how would you say this; how would you express it through your particular body, your metabolism, your breath and movement patterns, your posture? The body becomes scored through a scoring for the breath — for how the poem might become read aloud or in one’s ‘head.’ Halpern, I know, goes to any public reading of his poetry with anxiety, precisely because he doesn’t know how he will read a given poem. The body will determine this, the situation the body is in, the emotional or affective circumstances of the reading.

This poetics of breath obviously goes back to Williams, Creeley, Olson, and other Projective poets. Halpern torques this tradition by providing it with the content of a biopolitics addressed to neoliberalism and the military-industrial complex. This genealogy is also torqued by Halpern’s recognition of a Queer affect infusing his body (of work). Disaster lyric, the name we might assign to Halpern’s and others’ work of the past twenty-some-odd years, produces the poem as a ‘wreck’ of the senses inasmuch as the body is hailed by state apparatuses and other disciplinary matrices. But the lyric is also what actively produces disaster — disaster as that starless condition without plans, destiny, fate. It is in such a wreck, a counter-wreck if you will, that the poem can open towards conditions of possibility for bodies, a general intellect or affective ground for a future multitude or commons. Archaeologies of morning and mourning (moaning?).

Whereof the poem gives rise to phenomenological awareness and action.

Whereof the poem is a tool for attunements, stimmung, proprioception.

Whereof the poem is a site where mind and body would touch and become aware of this touching (chiasmus).

Whereof the poem is a site of mind-body-world in relation, an abstraction or composition of this relation.

Whereof the poem, both on/off page, is constitutive of a forcefield, a mediating play of inequal distributions of power, difference, “disjunctive syntheses” (Gilles Deleuze).

Whereof the poem, both on/off page, is a field of action, a call to activity, a dance of forces, of attractions and aversions, a dance per se by which to coordinate multitude.

 

In Eleni Stecopoulos’s Armies of Compassion, Stecopoulos writes: “Robert Duncan thought war makes bad use of its soldiers — the synchrony and solidarity of their mass. War destroys the dance in itself” (75).

 

What if power were put elsewhere, distributed differently?

What if crowds and power (crowds as a form power assumes) were channeled for purposes other than war, profit, exploitation, homeland, knowledge for knowledge’s sake?

Whereof the poem is a site of movement(s).

Whereof the poem is a site of bodies coextensive in movement.

Whereof the poem is a site of discrepant bodies co-constitutive through different (and oftentimes incommensurable) movements.

Whereof the poem is a place where these (potential) movements become organized.

Whereof the poem is a place where these (potential) movements become expressed.

 

In any discussion of “potential” as it regards aesthetics or writing practices, I am immediately reminded of Robert Kocik’s work, which, if I had to say it was about anything, I would say that it was about potential itself. This comes across in Kocik’s language practice, which seeks through prosodic means to reveal language as a subtle material and, moreover, as a transformative, empowering, and healing force. Kocik has explored language as a site of empowerment and healing through his scores with the choreographer Daria Fain. In Kocik’s scores for Germ (2005), where he employed a chorale round in one of the culminating dances, and the more recent Phoneme Choir (2007–present), which seeks to decreate the English language (to Re-English, as the title of Robert’s score goes) in order to create a new form of commoning based on the proto- (or post-) linguistic phoneme. As I have written elsewhere of Fain’s and Kocik’s Phoneme Choir:

While the Phoneme Choir may have any number of effects, its most basic intention is two-fold. On the one hand, the Phoneme Choir provides a means of healing by drawing upon a confluence of ancient practices, including techniques from East and Southeast Asia, the Middle East and ancient Greece. On the other, it presents a radical assault on the English language in particular, inasmuch as Kocik, and Fain recognize English as a language rooted in militaristic, mercantile and utilitarian endeavors. As Kocik polemicizes throughout much of his recent writing on the English language’s evolution in relation to American democracy: “English has never been the speech of a free people.” If the current economic, ecological and security crises are consequences of the properties and propagation of the English language, by embodying the rudiments of the language and opening it to new inherences the Phoneme Choir provides a ready toolbox to remedy empire.[3]

Coupling gesture with dance, spoken or sung lyric with phonemics, the Phoneme Choir seeks after a future anterior in which futures past may come to be and what will have been is expressed as the now time of current bodies choreographically and chorically. Likewise, in Kocik’s practices as a designer and architect, potential is maximized through the design of a particular piece of furniture (such as the bookcases Kocik has become known for, which rotate and are set on wheels for rearrangement), or, in the case of Kocik’s proposed design for a renovated Feldenkrais Center in Manhattan, through a designed interior. What is striking about the Feldenkrais Center proposal is that, true to Moshé Feldenkrais’s somatic philosophy whereby the Israeli physicist sought to focus on “relationship[s] between movement and thought” in the belief that “increased mental awareness and creativity accompany physical improvements,”[4] the building’s design seeks to cultivate facility in its occupant-users — awareness, perception, corporeal know-how. Robert Kocik: “It’s more than a matter of air quality. ‘Respiration’ is the word I end up with. How can entering the room be like learning how to breathe? Especially for children with motor difficulties … who have been less able to properly develop the muscles of respiration.”[5] Where someone may perceive physical defect, Kocik conceives that “disservice” is “the secret name of God.”[6] Alluding to Kabbalah, and other hermetic spiritual traditions (Ismaili-Shi’ite Gnosticism, too), Kocik seeks disability’s inversion through subtle properties, the angelic potentia that inhere in every body and not just those perceived prejudicially as fitting a model of normativity within the built environment. Kocik, likewise, through his acknowledgement that nearly all of us will become disabled before we die, treats the bodily preemptively for disuse (the loss of functions). What if the normal condition of all bodies was perceived impairment? Would we then have to treat all bodies as being in need of facilitation — the full reaching of their potential among a socius? This is one of the many radical questions posed by Kocik’s work as it relates to a somatic poetics.

 

Whereof the body becomes a place where perceived weaknesses become strengths, aptitudes, facilities. Robert Kocik: “Are there glorious states without fitness? Undeserving and elated? Gratuitous and undying? Aren’t vulnerability and hunger advantageous too (Athens became a philosophical power only after losing its navy)?”[7]

Whereof the poem acts as the site of this body, or bodies in relation to other bodies.

Whereof the body becomes a site of dis-ability, dis-use, dis-service, dis-combobulation.

Whereof the poem may make visible the conditions of possibility of/in these (somatic) conditions.

Whereof form is “never more than condition / passing as body.”

Whereof the built environment confronts (or confounds) the body, the poem as the site of this confronting/confounding.

Whereof the built environment makes known a body’s difference from other bodies, its disability or disuse — the poem as the site of this.

Whereof these tensions reveal meaning, social or civic truth, the event of this truth of our being with one another inequally through an embodied consciousness.

Whereof the subject or subjects seek to transform the built environment for ethical, political, and/or legal reasons — the poem as the site of this, too.

 

After the legacy of various Civil Rights movements and subaltern politics, Tobin Siebers recognizes in his book Disability Theory that disabled bodies should be the rule and not the exception (what Jacques Rancière calls the “part of the part”). This is because the disabled body historically, as Siebers shows, represents the subaltern of the subaltern. In societies where racism (and other isms) has flourished, such as our own, the racist has recourse to metaphors of disability — physical or mental weakness, deformity. One challenge of art, then, is to create situations that may bring to the foreground the messianic kernel of disabled bodies, which stand for all of our bodies — are thus an emerging universal subject — inasmuch as they will at some point be in need of care, assistance, and/or challenged by their (social) environment. How, tactically, to frame those differences which become visible through the interactions of bodies with their civic, social, and built settings? How, for instances, by documenting the bureaucratic processes which occupy the time of many disabled, as Amber DiPietra does through a series of works in which she documents her experience being on the phone with various health care providers and civic services for the disabled?

 

Whereof the body was sufficient, but only seemed to “fall short.”

Whereof it was actually the built environment and the social conditions that made possible the making of this environment which “fell short” — often devastatingly so.

The poem as a site where this could become clear.

The poem as a site where this could become known.

 

And given the need to address built environments in relation to bodies, how these bodies actually use their environment, environments not always being built with certain bodies in mind. The body becomes a visible response, it enters into an involuntary proceduralism, it is seized by constraint just by being, just by acting within the world — can the poem be a site for this visible response? Amber DiPietra embodies (literally) such a condition of writing extended from bodily constraint, involuntary procedure, and seizure within the circumstances of the built environment, where such circumstances necessitate new subjects and forms:

How to work with and through the body without dragging the whole history of this body into every line? What if to bring my body into the writing means to experience the same limitations and rigidity I experience in the body outside of writing? How to bend forward from a number of small vertebral fusions the back of me has enacted against gravity, against the better judgment of flow. Bend forward toward a new form in writing. Allow yourself the spacious start of the minuscule, to begin just by thinking of bending and of form. Just by being with bending.[8]

And given the desire for “remediation,” “maintenance,” regulation of toxicity, of electro-magnetism and pollution — the sheer speed and invisibility of “our” processes.

Given the need for tactical magic, for intervention in the ways space exists and the ways that it is made, in spatial practices.

Given that there are chemicals we live among, and to live among them can mean death and disease to anyone.


Abby Block performs in PARK: PDX in 2011. Choreography and direction by Kathy Westwater; text and vocal concept by Jennifer Scappettone. Photo by Marina Zamalin.

This past winter I was able to attend Kathy Westwater’s and Jennifer Scappettone’s performance of PARK (2010) at Dance Theater Workshop in Manhattan, a dance work-cum-“pop-up opera” that features choreography by Westwater and collage-text by Scappettone. What I most liked about the performance were the ways Westwater and Scappettone were obviously working collaboratively with their performers to discover a language coeval between dance and poetry in order to embody a response to toxified landscape, namely a series of Superfund sites around Chicago and New York where Scappettone had conducted her fieldwork. What would it mean to sing, cry, speak, intone the toxins out of “us”? (At a culminating moment of the dance performance the performers rolled a Mylar tarp over the heads of themselves and the audience, singing to us, chanting and whispering.) What does it mean to work between site (Superfund) and non-site (dance studio) to locate a proper form of expression in order to perform remediation — remediation of the dancer-intoner’s body in relation to landscape? I keep thinking that the word “remediation” is not adequate, that it should be in quotes or under erasure (as it is on one of the first pages of David Buuck’s Buried Treasure Island pamphlet [2008]). Somatics, like experimental art and poetry, is about finding the right words from the ground up, in relation to embodied conditions. But what if this ground has been contaminated? How does one find ground — a foothold, a purchase? It is as if the whole world need be remade. The body, and language as a body, becomes the beginning of the world again. A ritual of decreation and recreation, of (world) unmaking and remaking.


Development of PARK  in 2010. Choreography and direction by Kathy Westwater, art direction by Seung Jae Lee, poetry and text scores by Jennifer Scappettone. Photo by Anja Hitzenberger.

 

And given that there are things in the air and underground that we can’t see.

Given that the legibility of so many production processes are withdrawn from our attention, and that they are intended to be withdrawn.

That these things too are legislated, committed, coerced, consented to.

That both our coercion and consent often remain unrecognized, though they can mean our demise and the demise of others.

 

Any notion of “somatics” — a term coined in the 1970s around contemporary dance circles alluding to various movement-based healing techniques and techniques for exploring the body’s physical processes — cannot be divorced from environment.[9] In July of 2007, I gave my first of three workshops with the Nonsite Collective in the home of Jocelyn Saidenberg. Under discussion were two texts, one by Jalal Toufic on his concept of the “surpassing disaster,” the other by Rebecca Solnit on gold mining practices in Nevada. In Solnit’s essay, from her collection Storming the Gates of Paradise, she shows us that the commodity value of the gold in Nevada is not worth the use value of the water used to mine the gold. In another startling admission, Solnit cites the extraordinary damage caused by mining-techniques to the water tables beneath the Nevada and other mining sites. Disaster was once a thing we could see, but this is no longer the case. I am reminded here of Muriel Rukeyser’s brilliant documentary poem, US 1, written for the miners stricken with silicosis after the Hawks Nest Tunnel Disaster in Gauley Bridge, VA, who Rukeyser encountered working for the WPA as a photographer in her early 1920s. In US 1, the deadly (and extremely painful) disease silicosis flickers between a “thing” that can be seen through prosthetic-medical means (X-rays) and one retreating from our vision — tearing away at the lungs in secret. However devastating industrial mining practices are, they at least tend to be somewhat local, if by local we are talking about hundreds of miles. A new challenge facing Ecoartists from here on out will be confronting whole ecological systems without national, let alone local, boundaries. These systems resist visibility too as they reside in the air, oceans, and soil — our most basic elements. Using art and writing as a “legal material” (Rob Halpern), Bay Area-based artist Amy Balkin forages ways to confront the bureaucratic apparatuses which make possible the continued expropriation of our elemental commons — the rights of all to clean water, air, soil, etc. She does so specifically in Public Smog (2006–present), which not only creates a clean air commons miles above the atmosphere through the purchase of carbon emissions credits, but also records phone calls with UNESCO officials whereby Balkin would attempt to preserve the atmosphere as a World Heritage “preservation site.” Through Balkin’s documentation of these phone calls one realizes the many legal aporias confronting environmental activists as they face crises beyond any single national territory or legislative entity.

 

And given the exploited body, the stateless body, the non-“normative” body, the body detained.

Given the pharmaceutical body, the armored body, the body injured in conflicts one will never see (because they are not represented, not processed for the oversaturated attention).

Given the perceived “monstrous,” the odd, the queer — those bodies which resist categorization, discursus, registration.

Given disarticulation, given the loss of language(s), given torture and given harm — the body under constant threat of harm.

Given the different forms articulation can assume — through a cry for instance?

 


Bhanu Kapil in a spring 2011 performance at Dikeou Gallery, Denver, for Titmouse Release Party: "A scene from [for] Ban."

In Bhanu Kapil’s work, I am reminded of the body’s suffering and its virtual transcendence. Perhaps no other writer of our moment has so adequately forged a language for the body in pain, and made such a commitment to this body. The commitment is in the grammar, which is a grammar of the liminal — of borders, interstices, hybridity. Periods punctuate the borders running-through the (hum)animal soul of Kapil’s prose. In Kapil’s first book, The Vertical Interrogation of Strangers (2001), she provides a questionnaire to women of Indian diaspora. This questionnaire concerns the state of the women’s lives, their relationship to men, the threats of violence they feel within their society. What comes out is a beautiful prose poem hardly reflective of the private and brutal responses one must expect would have been generated by the questionnaire.

In Kapil’s second book, Incubation: a Space for Monsters (2006), Kapil writes her autobiography through the figure of Laloo, a carnival “freak,” interposing Laloo with various other monster and cyborg personae. The book is charming, yet terrifying if you read behind the lines. Immigration haunts it. So does assimilation. Wherein to pass as “human” is to be properly assimilated. Incubation: a Space for Monsters ends with a road trip to the United States. This section of the book is basically a guide for hitchhiking women, which includes ways to prepare for the threat of rape on the road. Kapil’s most recent books Water Damage_ _ _ _: a map of three black days (2007), Humanimal: a Project for Future Children (2010), and Schizophrene (forthcoming 2011) commemorate the traumatic upbringings of her parents who in the case of her mother is a survivor of the border dispute of 1947 between Pakistan and India that forced millions of Pakistanis and Indians to migrate. In the wake of this forced immigration Kapil’s mother suffers from schizophrenia. Kapil’s father, who was ravished by famine as a child in India, is commemorated in Humanimal, a book documenting the “wolf-children” Amala and Kamala discovered in Bengal in 1920. At the heart of this work is an admission of guilt (of sorts), or at least of complicity. Attempts were made by doctors to “normalize” the bodies of Amala and Kamala after the transformation of their muscle tissue while wandering among their wolf pack. In Kapil’s line of work (besides being a professor of writing at the Naropa Institute and Goddard College, she is also a bodyworker), she applies Rolfing techniques, a method of bodywork in which the bodyworker begins by “breaking down” muscle tissue then reforming it. What, Kapil’s work seems to beg, are the ethics of bodywork techniques such as Rolfing in relation to other medical and nonmedical procedures? Who gets to put the “monstrous” body “back together”? Who says what or who is monstrous? How do metaphors of the inhuman or liminally human affect how we encounter the human-animal other?

 

And given the fact of a missing sense, another becoming amplified.

And given this discourse of the senses, this becoming synaesthesiac, these inverse synaesthesias that also make up common sense.

Given all the pain, given the fact that our deaths cannot even be shared.

Given the bodies discourse has made.

Given what cannot be contained by discourse.

And given that there are subjects.

Given that there is sometimes no subject.

Given all of the ways that bodies are subjected.

 

Perhaps somatic poetics becomes the promise of a different sovereignty — a “different domination” (John Taggart). A domination redistributing dominion, diadem, fundamental governmentability.

Perhaps somatic poetics becomes a mobile commons — a commons of what cannot always be shared.

Perhaps somatic poetics becomes a site of our non-appropriation and our expropriation.

It forces us, in other words, to assume a certain complicity with which all bodies are charged.

To make “work” from a position or multiple positions of culpability.

 

The poem has not yet determined what a body can do. Somatics? The poem cites the body’s (lack of) determination within a sociopolitical field. In this way is it both constructive and deconstructive. Feeling (affectivity) can over-/in-determine any sense of the thing (poem) having been constructed or it having been taken apart. Lyric (what has traditionally been called lyric) is the typical mode of this over- or in-determination.

Composition demonstrates (it exposits) but it is also a site where states of feeling, awarenesses, “being,” and consciousness are undergone. Like a patient (or Orpheus) goes under. Eleni Stecopoulos: “Orpheus had to climb down the base of his skull because the message wasn’t getting through.”

To lie, in a white space, terrified, following the push of liquids through clear channels, though skins and membranes. To feel terrified, lying, pushing to follow the liquids though membranes and skins into clear channels. To feel the clarity of channels liquefying terror’s push right through the skin. To feel no skin, actively. To embrace a membrane between feeling and articulation.[10]

The poem is a site of undergoing, the body undergoing something, a process internally or externally mediated by language, a process that extends from environment, from language use in the (built) environment. As in the work of Deleuze and Guattari, one becomes animal, environment, historical personage (Nietzsche’s every name in history is I), chemical state: they do not merely represent it (the psychoanalytic fallacy). Hannah Weiner is thus “our” contemporary test for undergoing because the journals record and compose the act of undergoing, of being under (as a patient). In Spoke (1984), Weiner jokes about Orpheus — one of her (three?) voices being “subscripted.”

Amber DiPietra: “The body becomes the problem.” Weiner’s body becomes her problem in the sense that she must overcome, or merely deal with, somatic exigencies — exigencies of her neural-chemical becoming — through an aesthetic means. Clairvoyant journalism is thus born from oversensitivity in Weiner’s journal The Fast (1992). Undergoing writing (a somatic poetics?) is not “better” or more “authentic” than other kinds of writing or art. Just different. Coming from a different place/set of concerns/needs (like Kafka’s use of the journal, whereof Blanchot said that Kafka wrote in a journal to observe who he was when he was not writing.)

Can one undergo through the poem the conditions of a landscape, geographical or social location, intersubjective formation, or sociopolitical incommensurability? To what extent could this undergoing produce a different set of affective or intersubjective coordinates, or simply make visible the conditions that made the work of art/poem possible or necessary? In Rachel Zolf’s Neighbour Procedure (2010), she says that the book is an attempt to compose a series of “mad affects.” What about the mad affects of places? Relations? Histories of relation? The body is an extension of places and beings in ‘space-time.’ Susan Howe: “Once I was driving to Buffalo alone, moving up there for the winter to teach. It was me and my car and the mountains. I had a tape of Articulations from a reading I had done, and I thought I would turn it on as I was passing the place near where Hope [Atherton] had been wandering after the raid — and it was a wonderful feeling because the sounds seemed to be pieces still in the air there. I was returning them home as I drove away from home.”[11] The body both mediated by and mediating the (mad) affect of such places. Could Paterson have been written by just any body? Could Muriel Rukeyser’s “Book of the Dead,” or The Maximus Poems by Charles Olson, or “An Ordinary Evening in New Haven” by Wallace Stevens? Could (more recently) C. S. Giscombe’s Giscombe Road or Bhanu Kapil’s post-national oeuvre?

Since in any place inhere the things that have been there, and that (sometimes literally) remain there through its “half-lives” (that remain undead, in other words). And since any body is not just a body, which is to say, never only a finite membrane or container but a complex extension, a bundle of what it has encountered, consumed, sensed, felt, and touched — the body is many different places at once (in neoliberal terms, it has “gone global”). Place is, then, extended by many different bodies at once (the logic of virus, outbreak, contamination, plague). Somatics is a site — the aesthetic site — where we undergo these places.[12] The existences of these places within the body become framed, but also possibly moved (expressed, transformed, en route). “Remediation” (the shibboleth for any number of public and corporate earthworks projects post-disaster) then not only occurs within a particular geography or topology but in or at the body as a site coextensive with such places.


CAConrad prepares to eat a piece of gemstone (rhodonite) as part of his soma(tic) poetry exercises.

The recognition I am describing happens repeatedly through CAConrad’s (Soma)tic Exercises, where so many of the exercises instruct the reader/writer/user to attend a particular place in relation to one’s own somatic condition, habit, and design.[13] This recognition — the recognition that the body enfolds multiple places conterminously — also occurs in David Buuck’s site-specific field investigations and performances, and particularly in his 2008 work, Buried Treasure Island. In his pamphlet for Buried Treasure Island, Buuck surveys an “archeology of the future.” Through the excavation of San Francisco’s Treasure Island — once a world’s fair ground, then a military base, now a base of operation for any number of clandestine experiments and housing projects — Buuck explores futures past — not so much what “could have been” as what remains charged with messianic potentials.

The knight’s move here is to imagine the future-past from its own vantage point, as if reenacting the battles yet to come. Thus strange verb tenses must be enacted: these are those things that will have had to have been, that will have had to yet occur in order for such performatives to imagine themselves into being today. Thus the body becomes the vessel for acts of conceptual theater, site-specific performances that aim to have had liberated other futures from the husks of the present.[14]

Buuck also explores the landscape of Treasure Island as a site in need of remediation — re-use, re-expropriation, “respiracy.” “Pre-enactments of re-mediation work aim to rehearse the autonomous reclamation of land use as its ‘respiracy’ — a term that will have had to have been concocted to somehow capture the vernacular practice of ‘respiratory piracy,’ by which air quality and environmental inequality are confronted head-on by those affected populations and their partisans” (16). In a particularly dramatic gesture during Buuck’s slideshow performance of Buried Treasure Island for the Manhattan-based event series “Peace on A” in June of 2008, Buuck consumed toxic dirt samples taken from Treasure Island, doing so in homage to CAConrad, whose book (Soma)tic Midge had appeared that spring with Faux Press and which Buuck quotes in the pamphlet for Buried Treasure Island. Through Buuck’s performance the body itself became a site for extended remediation; it also became a visible symbol that the soma and the places we move through are inextricably woven — that to poison the environment is to pose a threat to ourselves, the sovereignties and connatuses (co-births) of our singular somas. Coupled with (future) pirate songs and an extemporized lecture (à la Smithson’s snickering 1969 slide-show talk, Hotel Palenque) Buuck’s Buried Treasure Island performances present yet another expression of a somatic poetics — somewhere between improv, lecture, recital, Vaudeville act, and tactical performance art.

 

Whereof a stutter in this wreck called us

Whereof a wreck that is our bodily condition — any embodied consciousness — every body in history being I

Whereof the consequences of this were felt and unmade

To be human and animal and unmourned — dis/possessed

To imbibe the harm that involves us and is also a condition taking form

To transform this condition

To ground the social on this ground

We have taken to our literal mouths, into our literal mouths, in a literal air

A somatic poetics perhaps …

 


 

1.  Eleni Stecopoulos, Armies of Compassion (Long Beach, CA: Palm Press, 2010), 92.

2.  Rob Halpern, Disaster Suites (Long Beach, CA: Palm Press, 2009), 9.

3.  Thom Donovan, “Choir Praxis: On Daria Fain’s and Robert Kocik’s Phoneme Choir Movement Research Festival, Judson Memorial Church, May 4, 2009,” The Brooklyn Rail, April 2009.

4.  “The Feldenkrais Method of Somatic Education.”

5.  Robert Kocik, “Proposed Renovation of the Field Center,” in Sore Oversensitive Sciences (unpublished manuscript). Italics are mine.

6.  Robert Kocik, Rhrurbarb (Lewiston: Field Books, 2007), 19.

7.  Kocik, Overcoming Fitness (New York: Autonomedia, 2002).

8.  Amber DiPietra, “My Notebook Has a Rigid Spine or How to Operate the Body in Writing” (paper, Poetics and Healing Symposium, Meridian Gallery, San Francisco, CA, May 9, 2009).

9.  For a helpful tracing of this term see Martha Eddy, “A Brief History of Somatic Practices and Dance: Historical Development of the Field of Somatic Education and its Relationship to Dance,” Journal of Dance and Somatic Practices 1, no. 1 (2009). Thanks to Patrick Durgin for drawing my attention to and supplying me with a copy of this article.

10.  Quoted from the entry for “patiency” at Nonsite Collective’s website.

11.  Susan Howe, “Talisman Interview, with Edward Foster,” in The Birthmark: Unsettling the Wilderness in American Literary History (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1993), 172.

12.  Curiously, Robert Duncan writes that “The myth or pattern of elements in the story is a melody of events in which the imprint of a knowledge — knowledge, here, in the sense of a thing undergone — enters the generative memory and the history of man takes on tenor,” echoing, perhaps, my own sense that to undergo is to radicalize relationship through a logic of incorporation, albeit decentered or displaced. Qtd. in Hank Lazar, “The Poetry of Myth: The Scene of Writing, Thinking as Such,” Mythosphere 1, no. 4: 411.

13.  For example, in a recent (Soma)tic Exercise devoted to Hannah Weiner, Conrad instructs the user on how to astral travel during an MRI in the following (place-dependent) way: “For the week leading up to your MRI, each time you enter your chosen space STOP at the entrance, and take a long look around. Then close your eyes and imagine what you saw. Open your eyes and notice what you missed when imagining what you saw, for it is the missing things you will incorporate each time you repeat this exercise until you have gathered the entire space in your mind.” See CAConrad, “Radiant Elvis MRI,” (Soma)tic Poetry Exercises blog, February 6, 2010.

14.  David Buuck, Buried Treasure Island: A Detour of the Future (San Francisco/Oakland: BARGE, 2008), 8.