Advocating for the downplayed, epistemologically outcast sense of touch in her essay “Textiles, Text and Techne,” collected in Hemmings’ The Textile Reader, Victoria Mitchell writes: “It is clear that textiles are not words and the differences between them benefit the conceptual apparatus of thought at the expense of its sensory equivalent. Thus when an activity is labelled as textiles it ceases to be a substance and becomes instead a ‘material of thought,’ and as such enters into the internal logic of a system which tends to privilege the autonomy of the mind.”
I would like to complexify Mitchell’s claim by extending two of her subjects: words and the senses.
Victoria Mitchell’s essay begins by recounting Charlotte’s Web and that clever spider weaving words into her web in order to warn her friend the pig. Mitchell articulates that of course the story is a fiction, and a spider’s ability to make webs “is understood in terms of the mechanics of the nervous system; it therefore falls short of the kind of language experience typically associated with the written word.”
It is difficult to conceive of a literary work spun out of “spatial motion.” To read and consider a poem that defies iconographic metaphor and symbolic interpretation, a poem intrstead composed out of language’s own phenomenal play, is to butt up against traditional values about poetry that still slide toward the pictorially descriptive.
Laynie Browne: Recently a show at the Morgan Library in New York City celebrated the 1913 publication of the first of the seven volumes of Swan’s Way. Here one could see some of Proust’s original handwritten manuscripts and notebooks, some of which have never left Paris. In one notebook, considering his book in progress he writes: “Should it be a novel, a philosophical essay, am I a novelist?”
In your novel The Mandarin, the question is potently raised in various ways, who is a novelist? What is a novel? I wonder if you could comment on this.
While I was listening to the following recordings, I kept thinking about how my friend Noah Eli Gordon used to love finding yield-to-pedestrian crosswalks when we both lived in Western Massachusetts, and how much he enjoyed simply being able to walk across the street without worrying about being crushed by a huge SUV. (We had both grown up in different parts of the sprawling Midwest where cars never stopped for pedestrians.) I don’t want to dwell too much on this personal association, but listening to each of these recordings recreated some version of that feeling of being struck by a small moment of unexpected freedom in the immediate environment.
It’s not that these recordings are full of unequivocal happiness or unchecked optimism (there’s plenty of complication, violence, distress, and danger hovering around them all), but that they temporarily create spaces for the listener to experience the interplay of phenomena, a listening-feeling that acknowledges complexity and flux but doesn’t make one feel a sensory overload (though I love recordings that do that too).
Scalapino is always just ahead, inventing the essay anew, as a necessary means for the exploration of consciousness, perception, and meaning in and for language, with full engagement with, and acknowledgement of, the political valences of every poetic act as it falls into, or fails, the social. In the expanded field of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E, Scalapino's essays are central: a model not just of possibilities but of "landing sites" to use the term of Madeline Gins and Arakawa.
Tracy Grinnell has done a superb job assembling this collection, which Scalapino was working on at the time of her death about a year ago. As always, Scalapino pushes beyond any easy sense of essay. What unfolds here is the startling unexpectedness of thought, articulated in visual and verbal forms that confound genre categories. In this book, Scalapino creates fields for thinking-as-perception, in which the poem emerges from the essay as counterpoint and newly forming foundation. The complex of disparate parts creates working models for a social formalism. Scalapino introduces the terms "seamless antilandscape" to acknowledge that an aversion to traditionl representation does not produce disjunction but rather a syncretic perceptual experience.