A pale Usher

Lexicon-Cetus is a dictionary that compiles and defines every single unique word from Melville’s Moby-Dick; or, The Whale. There are approximately 16,000 “unique” words in Moby-Dick; about 5,000 of them are a mixture of common given names, plurals, infinitives, gerunds, and/or adjectival/adverbial forms of root words. If the root word is already defined in the lexicon, then any derivations thereof are for the most part excluded. So the text is comprised of roughly 13,000 definitions (including all meaningful proper nouns; people, places, textual references, etc.) There are also 163 Unicode illustrations (range: 1F300–1F5FF), which appear programmatically throughout the book. (Only symbols that are exact matches with words in the lexicon were used.) The text is about 110,000 words longer than Melville’s novel.

The list of unique words was compiled using NLTK (Natural Language Toolkit), a Python platform for textual/linguistic analysis. About seventy-five percent of the definitions were acquired from Princeton’s WordNet 3.0. The rest had to be gathered manually using The Oxford English Dictionary,, and Wikipedia. The book was edited and formatted using Python, MS Word, Excel, NotePad, TextPad, Adobe Acrobat, Photoshop, and Illustrator. The entire process took a little over a month, working typically between three to five hours a day.

The basic idea for the lexicon comes from the paratextual opening of the novel, in which we are introduced to an “Usher” who provides us with “etymologies” and translations of the word “whale.” (“Usher” here has a double meaning; it implies both a herald, and an assistant to a schoolmaster, or apprentice scholar.) Not surprisingly, Melville’s characterization of the Usher is far from flattering: “consumptive,” “pale,” “threadbare in coat, heart, body, and brain … ever dusting his old lexicons and grammars.”[1] … this usher is a miserable creature. Perhaps this book is the work of such a creature.

Though not always diseased, poor, heartless, weak, and stupid, lexicographers and lexicons in general do tend to be somewhat maligned figures/objects in the literary imagination, or they are at least representative of a kind of pinnacle (or nadir) of creative incompetence. It seems that the lexicographer, as a compiler/arranger of words, and the lexicon, as his/her compilation or arrangement, are wholly inimical to what we expect or allow “writer” and “poem” to mean. Here, for example, is Ambrose Bierce (as written in his own lexicon …):

LEXICOGRAPHER, n. A pestilent fellow who, under the pretense of recording some particular stage in the development of a language, does what he can to arrest its growth, stiffen its flexibility and mechanize its methods … In the golden prime and high noon of English speech … when a Shakespeare and a Bacon were possible, and the language now rapidly perishing at one end and slowly renewed at the other was in vigorous growth and hardy preservation … the lexicographer was a person unknown, the dictionary a creation which his Creator had not created him to create.[2]

Here is Calvino, slightly more succinctly: “The struggle of literature is in fact a struggle to escape from the confines of language; it stretches out from the utmost limits of what can be said; what stirs literature is the call and attraction of what is not in the dictionary.”[3]

This seems to be the general consensus. Because dictionaries, lexicons, word compilations, etc., represent the lowest common denominator of linguistic usage (which is because that’s precisely what they’re meant to do), they are natural metaphors for creative vacuity. 

But for all that, the dictionary/lexicon is not universally maligned. Anatole France seems to have understood the word with some measure of vastness, wonder, and potentiality. “Dictionary: The universe in alphabetical order. The dictionary is the book above all books … All other books are in it: it is only a matter of taking them out.”[4]

But if we reverse France’s logic we arrive at the conceptual core of Lexicon-Cetus, wherein we touch upon a somewhat unexpected epiphenomenon of the transformation from “book” back to lexicon. When its component parts are stripped of their arrangement, alphabetized, and reattached to their generic meanings, the identity of Melville’s poetic universe is obviously destroyed. Here the novel Moby-Dick dies a methodical, protracted death. But more so, whereas in all other cases, the lexicon is only ever the beginning of the poetic lifecycle, here it is both beginning and end. The novel dies by being rearranged back into its most primordial configuration. “For you were made from dust, and to dust you shall return.”

However clear the finality of this rearrangement appears, once the dust has settled, something does in fact remain. For me, Lexicon-Cetus is an oddly “mystical” text. Even though each word is emptied out, hollow, like the cavernous belly of Moby-Dick, each word is at the same time weighed down by the gravity of its massive corpulence (Melville + Moby-Dick + Whale). While the spirit is torn asunder by the violence of rearrangement, still it seems to haunt every word. Where once was there was one massive Moby-Dick,now there are thousands of miniscule ones.

1. Herman Melville, Moby-Dick; or, The Whale (Los Angeles: Arion Press, 1979), viii.

2. Ambrose Bierce, The Devil’s Dictionary (New York: Dover Press, 1993), 70.

3. Italo Calvino, The Literature Machine (London: Secker and Warburg, 1987).

4. Anatole France, Life and Letters (London: Balantyne Press, 1914), 256.

'Corpaphysics, Conceptualism, and dualism

Larry Eigner, left, in 1984, photo by Alistair Johnston; Bernadette Mayer and CAConrad, right, photo © Lawrence Schwartzwald.

Is this mental/intellectual/psychological focus within Conceptualism ableist? At the very least it seems to be one-dimensional: the body marks a caesura, and it is a product of Conceptualism’s relationship with the body and its positioning of itself in relation to it. There’s so much of a focus on the idea, on how the work strikes the mind — it’s rife with duality. Indeed, Conceptualist scion Sol LeWitt’s “Paragraphs on Conceptual Art” can be surprisingly Cartesian at times. He writes: “Conceptual art is made to engage the mind of the viewer rather than his eye or emotions.”[1] This sentence bothers me because it implies that the mind is not somehow talking to the eye or emotions. If Conceptualism is about the idea, why couldn’t the idea be communicated through the body? What if the “machine” that drives the poem’s construction[2] is the body? What if the Oulipian constraint is the body (via disability, media, etc.)?

The manner in which I came to ask these questions is undeniably personal. On March 1, 2014, I suffered two small strokes in my thalamus and paramedial pons, respectively. I was lying in bed watching Bergman’s The Magician and noticed my lips were numb. I was having difficulty standing up. It was like I was drunk, but I’d been sober for a month. Then my partner said my right eyelid was drooping. We called an ambulance. I was taken to the hospital. They confirmed the strokes. About three days later, my neurologist gave me the prognosis: I probably would never drive again, I would have difficulty playing piano anywhere near like I had, my double vision would likely never be resolved, there was a ninety percent chance any one of the small strokes I had could have killed me, and neither did, so I was lucky to be alive at all. After seven days I was transferred to a rehab hospital. I relearned how to walk with a cane, regained some strength and coordination in my left arm and hand, and adjusted to using an eye patch because I had diplopia. After three weeks, I went home. I began aggressive outpatient therapy and by the summer no longer needed the cane or eye-patch and was taking piano lessons again, and my left hand and arm were roughly eighty to ninety percent back to normal (and remain so).

Needless to say, at first — due to the persistent dyskinesia of my left hand — typing was (and still is to a lesser but recognizable degree) a chore. My writing practice changed and became increasingly mediated or reliant upon found language or “plagiarism” (Apple + C/V was easier than typing). If I typed, I had to write in my head well in advance. My poetry became compressed, shorter, littered with the medical/physiological/therapeutic jargon I was inundated with in rehab, in the hospital, by nurses, physical and occupational therapists. Recording conversations or declamations by visitors surreptitiously via iPhone (or screencapping texts or Facebook messages to “plagiarize” later as well) became a primary mode of practice. I would often simply end up editing this found language or present it as is, merely adding line breaks (if that). As Conceptual as Goldsmith’s Fidget or formally radical as Kathy Acker’s work?[3] No. I was inspired by the work of poets like Larry Eigner (and his story), CAConrad and his soma(tics), and Bernadette Mayer’s approaches to biography (cf. The Helens of Troy, NY). The effects of these strokes — the headaches, diplopia, and dyskinesia — became constraints or platforms and frames for linguistic data. The Latinate jargon that flooded my ears became found-language poems, as did the fodder of the often absurd conversations with visitors, friends, and family.

So were these poems Conceptual? I think so. Goldsmith’s détournement of LeWitt’s “Paragraphs” might be suspect: “The physicality of the work can become a contradiction to its non-emotive intent. Rhyme, meter, texture, and enjambment only emphasize the physical aspects of the work. Anything that calls attention to and interests the reader in this physicality is a deterrent to our understanding of the idea and is used as an expressive device.”[1] The materiality alluded to here is cleaved to “physicality” not just in the sense of words on a page but writing produced by a body, through a body. The body, then, is an idea for purposes of Conceptual writing. Its failures, slippages, malfunctions, and (dis)abilities become part of that materiality and the media we use to mollify our bodies’ fallibility. They are a constituent part of the words on the page and thus the idea (often, the poetic devices Goldsmith alludes to become ways of “scoring” my body/existence). It is important that we begin to think of the work of disabled poets (indeed, all poets) not only as the work of the minds of these writers, but also the work of their bodies — a détournement, as it were, of disability as constraint and instead, like the pistons in an interference engine, the frictive kinesis of a language-producing machine. We might think of this as a special branch of Conceptual writing: ’corpaphysics, or the science of embodied solutions; disability poetics reconfigured as materialist/embodied poetics.

1. Sol LeWitt, “Paragraphs on Conceptual Art,” in Conceptual Art: A Critical Anthology, ed. Alexander Alberro and Blake Stimson (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1999), 15.

2. Kenneth Goldsmith, qtd. in Robert Fitterman and Vanessa Place, Notes on Conceptualisms (New York: Ugly Duckling Presse, 2009), 32.

3. I qualify Acker’s placement here because her work is clearly embodied — in fact, she may be the exemplar of how Conceptualist writing can be embodied.

4. Kenneth Goldsmith, “Paragraphs on Conceptual Writing,” Electronic Poetry Center.


Constraint and construction, body as page

Poet and reader inside poem in procession.

I talk about meaning all day long. I don’t feel that language comes out of my body, but rather that I observe and recycle it. Maybe my voice originates in my body, but language is a visitor that changes form all the time. I use my body all day long. I don’t feel that I am my body, but that embodiment is an idea that I observe and recycle. Maybe I originate in my body, but I am a visitor that changes form all the time. Is the idea that emerges from this line of thinking a concept? I think about what I want to do with poetry all day long. Maybe poetry originates in the space around me and I observe and recycle it. Is this a concept?

I engage in the conceptual body practices of yoga and butoh as a way of experimenting with the extraction and recontextualization of the body from public space to a collective space. With the guidance of a teacher, I follow directions while making decisions about how to interpret instructions for my own purposes of discovery and experience. In yoga practice, I enjoy the idea of giving up control of my own body for an entire hour in order to move according to the creative decisions of another. Often with my writing, I set rules for the poem and then let the language move within them. In both instances, something unexpected often happens.

Butoh is a bodily movement practice that emerged in reaction to modern dance. Instead of focusing on the shape that the body should make, the practitioner interprets the teacher’s prompts in their own way. For two hours, we writhe or crawl or walk at various speeds, become trees or reach for their fruit. Fall and die over and over. It is a time away from language, but a time when language is incubating or its elements are transforming into new foundations. What feels most related to my poetry practice is the allowance to go somewhere unexpected framed by an abstraction of ideas about how we think we move in the world. My body is a language that doesn’t always have to make sense.

A major difference between my bodily practices and my composition of poetry is the idea of performance. I’m adamant that I am not a performer. I don’t understand the value of others watching how I move my body. However, I am acutely aware during the process of composition that I want readers to share in the experience of the poem in multiple ways. I am creating prompts for reading as much as I am following the ones that I’ve created. The poem is also a space that I’m creating, a site of experimentation, sometimes messy and sometimes overly rigid, an explosion in explanation of some terrain rendered in language.

Notes toward an anthropological process

From 'Dossier on the Site of a Shooting.' Image by Paul Soulellis.

Three things I do: 

1. Dossier

“Dossier on the Site of a Shooting,”[1] published by GaussPDF in March 2015, presents pieces of evidence I gathered in an attempt to better understand the Trayvon Martin murder, the George Zimmerman acquittal, the lack of protest in Sanford emphasized in the news: notes from the site visit, silent iPhone video recording of the site, written site description, interviews with residents of Sanford, Google Maps screen shots, and other web media such as news accounts.

A review by Paul Soullellis in Rhizome describes the form this way: “Gallagher’s piece ‘reads’ like a dérive through a haunted crime scene, at times poignant, but my own interest is in its performative quality as a publishing event. In confronting her own understanding of the perplexing series of events, she challenges our own expectations — what to call it, what form to give it, how to disperse it.” He says the project allowed him to “shadow her movements in some way, just as she traced a path through the … events. I physically performed the dossier — moving, dragging, watching, engaging with Gallagher’s material in a relational way. Reading.”[2]

Soulellis suggests his engagement with “Dossier” invokes the contemporary experience of reading. Shifting across forms, platforms, and types of “information” is actually how most of us know what we think we know about the Trayvon Martin murder. I find this method of handling volatile, heavily mediated social materials more troubling and revealing than if dealt with through the highly disjunctive language of modernism, or even just language alone. Many situations worth writing about now need some engagement of the changing landscape of how we get information. The dossier model presents to readers a set of disjunctions between platforms, sources, and media, and like the file of a citizen-detective, insinuates readers in a reexamination of the case.

2. Transcription

I often see my work as presenting evidence. My job is to observe well and look in the right places, and part of that involves recording and transcribing. I love listening back to audio recordings; they reveal how consistently experience does not capture events. Audio recording doesn’t select like the human ear. Every sound is collected equally, landscape flattened into soundscape.

My first book, We Are Here, is ninety-nine examples of people reading maps, retracing steps, arguing over or discussing directions. For a period of time I brought my recording device with me everywhere. I found one thing consistently happened: much time was spent consulting maps and self-orienting — and the language of that was not only interesting but often funny. It is a weird, unsettling experience to hear yourself talking in a language you apparently use all the time — and so does everyone else — but no one has ever noticed. It reminded me of a quality of Georges Perec’s work I love: his capacity for capturing things that are so ubiquitous we don’t notice them. So I collected ninety-nine examples and published them.

Using recording technology is a truly contemporary practice. Not only is it woven into every moment of our lives, but using it as artists allows us to present evidence that perception and reflection never could.

3. Fictionalization

Most of the writing I do now is based in direct experience, including research experience, documenting efforts to find out “what happened” or playing with that concept. Among my influences are Zora Neale Hurston — her moving back and forth between anthropology and fiction, often using the same materials in both — and Tan Lin, who years ago started rewriting news stories as if they were about him, or his family and friends. In Seven Controlled Vocabularies, the painter Bruce Pearson, who loves food, is rewritten as a chef; in an untitled section of Lin’s as-yet unpublished novel Our Feelings Were Made by Hand, a news story of an old man who died and left a strange collection of objects is rewritten as a story about Lin’s uncle. Lin’s strategy not only plays with fictionalization and autobiography but also engages the role of mass media in our sense of identity, the ways in which identity is already ambient, diffuse, mediated.

Recently, this strategy has led me to a new approach to nature writing. I take reports of ecological disaster from around the world and rewrite them, blending them with both personal experience in Florida and eco-horror stories, anything from Lovecraft to popular film. It’s not enough to write a sad story about a cute, lovable dying species. The sweet story in The New Yorker about how friendly the soon-to-be-extinct Florida Scrub Jay is never mentions that, while nice to humans, they will swarm and peck out the brains of an enemy mockingbird through its eyes. Species and survival are complicated, messy, and so is our species’s likely future. It seems to me a certain amount of fictionalization helps increase the impact of the news, makes it even more true, unpalatable, more obviously undigestible in the way the truth of our own species’s death is undigestible.

At the same time, I like the idea of a nature writing that is already second-order, and that in some way reverses the formula of simple truth-in-witness empiricism. And then sometimes I still write from direct experience. I make no effort to distinguish. The effects of the writing are what matter.

1. Kristen Gallagher, “Dossier on the Site of a Shooting” (San Francisco: GaussPDF, 2015).

2. Paul Soulellis, “Digital Publishing Unzipped,” Rhizome, March 18, 2015.

Hysterically Real

1. Hysterically Real (United States: Internet, 2009) makes Conceptual artworks and performances. By applying a poetic and often metaphorical language, Real wants to amplify the astonishment of the spectator by creating compositions or settings that generate tranquil poetic images that leave traces and balances on the edge of recognition and alienation.

2. HR’s Conceptual artworks appear as dreamlike images in which fiction and reality meet, well-known tropes merge, meanings shift, past and present fuse. Time and memory always play a key role. By investigating language on a meta-level, HR often creates several practically identical works, upon which thoughts that have apparently just been developed are manifested: notes are made and then crossed out again, “mistakes” are repeated.

3. Hysterically Real’s works focus on the failings of communication, which are used to visualize reality, the attempt of dialogue, the dissonance between form and content and the dysfunctions of language. In short, the lack of clear references is a key element in the work. By manipulating the viewer to create confusion, HR tries to grasp language. Transformed into art, language becomes an ornament. At that moment, lots of ambiguities and indistinctnesses, which are inherent to the phenomenon, come to the surface.

4. HR works are on the one hand touchingly beautiful, on the other hand painfully attractive. Again and again, the artist leaves us orphaned with a mix of conflicting feelings and thoughts.

5. Hysterically Real currently lives and works in Buffalo, New York. HR is uncomfortable with all of these claims. HR is comfortable claiming to make picture books. HR is comfortable claiming to make poetry.