A review of 'Description of the Lie' and 'Gravestones'
Description of the Lie (Descripción de la mentira)
Rust is the color of disappearance, the deintensification of metallic solidity. Seen in a different slant of light, rust produces a reintensification of color in the meeting of iron and oxygen, the proliferation of autumn in a congeries of breath, moisture, and steel. On the tongue rust acquires a taste: the bitterness of a disappearance, an evaporation that leaves behind the strange piquancy of material erosion. In Antonio Gamoneda’s Description of the Lie, rust invokes the beginning of a precipitous, painful knowledge, a forgetting that paradoxically initiates a splintering of presence into prismatic refractions that call attention to time’s invisible phenomena:
Rust alighted on my tongue with the taste of a disappearance.
Forgetting penetrated my tongue and I had no recourse but to forget,
and I accepted no value other than impossibility.
Rust in this sense leaves a taste of forgetting, or the sight of “a calcified boat in a country from which the sea has receded,” leaving only the impossibility of a sea, a lost remembrance contained in the sight of cuttlefish bones and striated canyon walls, a place evidenced by an illegibility of ruins. To paraphrase a Deleuzian maxim, the pursuit of the impossible occasions a new set of possibles, new forms of description. Yet taste and sight do not predominate in Description of the Lie so much as does aurality. Absence, after all, is articulated by the optical “lack of many a thing … sought,” a remembrance of things past which, in Shakespeare’s original formulation, “drowns an eye” (in tears, but also in a cognitive blindness) and becomes absorbed in sonic traces at the “expense of many a vanished sight.” Gamoneda does not see (he cannot see what is no longer there), but he listens:
I listened to the surrendering of my bones being deposited in rest,
I listened to the flight of insects and the retraction of the shadow
on entering what was left of me;
I listened until truth ceased to exist in the space or in my spirit,
and I was unable to resist the perfection of silence.
When the Spanish Civil War began in 1936, Antonio Gamoneda was only five years old. He had lost his father, a poet, in 1932, inheriting only his name and spiritual vocation, and had moved from Oviedo with his mother to Leon, a permanent locus in the poet’s heart and mind, in 1934. Gamoneda’s career as a poet is marked by silences and disappearances. Born into war, he came of age during the Franco regime, a period given over to parochial fear, ideological repression, sudden incarcerations and executions, and the eerie nightly sound of moans “through the belt of poplars” (105). It was an historical necessity that Gamoneda’s poems would be called upon to account for death’s force and omnipresence (“la poesía es el relato de cómo se va hacia la muerte”). Under such ominous conditions, language for him devolved into a game of chutes and ladders, truthful lies and fabricated truths, because, as he writes in Description, “all the while torture has made a pact with words” (9) and those who “learned to travel with their gag … were more clever” in “a country without truth” (21). The independent poet’s educative process in Francoist Spain was hence a gradual and agonizing ritual of instrumentalizing silence, exile, and cunning (to borrow Joyce’s famous cri-de-guerre).
The 1950s staged a decisive moment of outgrowth for the young poet. La tierra y los labios (1947–52), unpublished in his time but later collected in the anthology Edad (1987), signaled the burgeoning of a poet still influenced by the prosodic and philosophic stylizations of the Generación del 27. Sublevación inmóvil (1960), his first published book, advanced this poetics, only this time informed, as the title indicates, by an inner revolt brought to immobility by social repression; its method of rebellion was essentially a hermetic one orientated around surreptitious metrical strokes and the capture of “the hard, undeclinable / material of lightning.” By the 1960s, however, Gamoneda’s hermeticism achieved a “perfection of silence” so total that, though he continued to write extensively (the work of this period would be later collected as Blues Castellano [1961–66], published in 1982), he would not be able to put out any major book for nearly seventeen years. Francoist censorship instigated an intellectual crisis: Gamoneda’s poetic had outgrown its earlier agnostic permutations, and his poems could no longer avoid a direct and battered denunciation of the violence and social reality that contorted the Spain of his time.
It wasn’t until Franco’s death in 1975 that Gamoneda boldly returned to literary life after an interminable absence — the disappearance of the physical embodiment of Francoism propelled him to stage his own reappearance as an unshackled poet. In 1976, faced with a dire urgency for cathartic expression, Gamoneda composed the entirety of Description of the Lie in a radical poetic where, in translator Donald Wellman’s words, “white space is crucial” and in which lyric voice “emit[s] flashes of violence and unexpected tenderness” (3). Description not only formally “represents Gamoneda’s poetic language at its most intense pitch,” but it also symbolically marks the decisive break with Spain’s tortured past that proved capable of articulating a language of mourning for its numberless disappeared and muted dead.
We can read the opening of Description (which I’ve quoted above) as an inverse poetic invocation; in place of an articulation, we listen to a silence that beckons with the slow palpitant force of a thousand scattered breaths resurfacing in a slow oxidation. The rust on Gamoneda’s tongue is the accrued rust of many years of censorship under Francoism, but it’s also the rust of the old aesthetic vehicles of modernismo that have given way to a stranger and crueler beauty, a beauty grown from the verbal decay of systems. Invocations “have returned like inevitable lichen” in the undergrowth enveloping this decadence. Awakened from an ideological slumber of seasons (“For five hundred weeks I have been absent from my intentions, / interred in nodules and silent under the curse.” ), Gamoneda plunges into the soil of natural processes and sensuous operations, down in the undergrowth beneath graves marked and unmarked, in those patches of uneven ground feebly demarcated by hurried steps and bitter tears:
In this country, at this time whose grief is inscribed on gravestones of mercury,
I am going to stretch out my arms and reach into the grass,
I am going to slip into the density of the holly bush so you will warn me,
so you will summon me into the moistness of your armpits. (11)
This immersion in the undergrowth narrates what Gamoneda calls “legislating in the negative” (13): that is, an inverse purity of heart that voluntarily reaches into the mud of the past and “smell[s] the testimonies of all that is filthy on earth” and “love[s] that which has remained of us,” the noxious white dust of incinerated bones, the terrified urine and feces of the assassinated, the hopeless question that asks: “what truth exists in the entrails of pigeons?” To legislate in the negative is to gainsay the truth or to betray it, to circumvent its will to dominate social reality and deny its vestiture of ideological commitment and logocentric binaries; it makes no “appeal to the truth because the truth has said no and made my body acidic,” and has made dross of the once ironclad belief in the sincerity of twentieth-century nationalist movements (“So was our age: we were going through beliefs” ). In lieu of the gross abstraction of positivist belief systems, Gamoneda rejects “truth” (a pliable object bent and unbent by machines of authoritarianism) and instead rests with his senses to the ground, immobile yet muscularly active, an animal whose “work is retraction,” a “retreat toward a maternal species” (21) that listens to silences and watches for the stealth movement of ants and sparrows, swarms and murmurs, the rhizomatic growth of molecular whispers. The rejection of the fallacious “truths” of human order institutes a converse acceptance of the essential openness and imperfection of the earth beneath, the rust and undergrowth whose silences speak.
Dirty, dirty is the world; but it breathes. And you enter the room
like a shining animal. (15)
The work of retraction, this legislating in the negative, reduces the human subject to an animal, a zoon politikon (political animal) who at any moment can fall prey to the environmental hazards of pernicious ideological climates; but this animal reduction is also a defense against language because it restores a dignity to the being deprived of, or endangered by, its political existence (what Agamben has described as the homo sacer). Questioning the validity of language to procure fit solutions to the problems it poses and confronts (“What is truth? Who has lived with it without domination?” ; “The questions don’t exist in the language of suppression: everything is annulled” ), Gamoneda absconds from structuralist ideality and “stay[s] in the mire,” since “cleanliness is useless,” asking instead that we “take notice, all of you, of my slowness and the animal that bleeds so sweetly in my soul” (23). By design this is not a single animal but many; Gamoneda’s animality suggests a state of maternality that continuously expresses itself in packs, in swarms, in a mobile multiplicity that evades the deathstroke of static nomenclatures:
I am being born as a different species whose exterior is livid. My animals
are unfamiliar with the slenderness of your knives and there are
numbers in my soul that I still don’t understand. (47)
Gamoneda’s version is no different from Deleuze/Guattari’s formulation: “Lines of flight or of deterritorialization, becoming-wolf, becoming-inhuman, deterritorialized intensities: that is what multiplicity is.” Building from negation, Gamoneda embraces the lie as a counter to the regime of truth embodied by Francoist Spain — if truth is false, then the lie becomes truth — because each perfectly told lie nearly always multiplies into a pluralism, an opening of the field that self-multiplies into a rich undergrowth of possibilities. In short, the description of the lie wills itself into a vanishing, a disappearance of the lie, and the reappearance of a truth beyond truthfulness itself — in febrile wounds, in dessicated lips, in the crust of days spent under accusatory suns. In Gamoneda’s lyric, the more a thing is described — human, animal, hydrangea, the emptiness of a blood-streaked room — the more it rusts and breaks apart into concentric circles of a temporalized structure, a thing undone by time itself, in the hour of disappearances:
Yes I found out about destruction and I fed myself on hidden grass
and chewed my name and lived with the disappearances. (63)
* * *
In the epilogue to a recent Spanish reissue of Gamoneda’s subsequent book, Gravestones (also available in an exceptional translation by Donald Wellman), Julian Jimenez Heffernan brings attention to “the animal depth” (el animal de fondo) at work in Gamoneda’s lyric. Heffernan’s thesis that Gravestones (Lápidas, first published in 1987) is a book written not from the perspective of an animal, but by an animal itself equally applies, as has been seen, to Description of the Lie. In both works, I suggest that this animal depth contains no face or surface, holds no object in view, arrives at no location, sniffs out no single meaning or entity; it is, to borrow (or, rather, mistranslate) a line from Rilke, more akin to “a breath concerning nothing” (Ein Hauch um nichts), or what I’d prefer to redefine as an objectless pneuma, a divine breath that does not repose or cease but continually respires and circulates, a pure voice that is both animal and animating. The lines from Rilke are familiar, the final two in the third Sonnet to Orpheus: “True singing is a different kind of breath. / An objectless pneuma. A Gust in God. A Wind.” Lines near the conclusion of Gamoneda’s Description remind me, in quick succession, of not only Rilke, but Celan too:
Lengthy hissings come from the courtyards. I listen until the most
belated hour when the world is a cavity and the beauty of
adultery simmers at the bottom of the vessels of night.
So is the eve of a day. Milk announces morning.
Who has penetrated my ears? (141)
Wellman’s translative work here manages to recall Celan’s “Death Fugue” (Todesfuge): “Black milk of daybreak … ” (Schwarze Milch der Frühe … ). The double echo of morning/mourning operates in such a way that the reference, however fortunate or imagined, picks up on the unspeakability of the spiritual anguish and oppression endured in the prisons and concentration camps of fascist Europe. The cavity of the world, in any case, predicates this referential potential on a tortured background of sounds and voices, echoes in a chamber that penetrate the ear in similar fashion to Rilke’s “Oh great Tree in the Ear!” from the first Sonnet to Orpheus (“O hoher Baum im Ohr!”), around which “animals of stillness” throng (“Tiere aus Stille drangen aus dem klaren / gelösten Wald von Lager und Genist”). Gamoneda embodies these animals of stillness, wild voices centering on the centerless oblivion of death, channeling an ontology of disappearance that traces the “lengthy hissings … from the courtyards” back to the ones “prepared for the hour of death” (141). Pneuma, from the ancient Greek πνεῦμα (wind, breath, spirit), describes the act of this detection of objectless spaces and absent gravestones, the tracing of voiceless murmurs to which Gamoneda, in a depth of pure animality, gives utterance in a Shelleyan lyre-like lying:
… This incomprehensible account is what remains of us.
Betrayal prospers in inviolable hearts.
The profundity of the lie: all my actions in the mirror of death. (Description 145)
If in Description of the Lie listening and voicing are the operative faculties (“escuché la rendición de mis huesos … escuché la huida de los insectos … escuché), then in Gravestones Gamoneda transitions to opticality and vision:
I saw the stigmata of lightning on still waters,
augmentations haunted by foreboding;
I saw fertile substances and others that live in your eyes;
I saw the residues of steel and big windows for the contemplation of injustice
(those ovals where phosphorescence hides) (23)
The “escuché … escuché … ” (I listened … I listened … ) changes to a litany of “vi … vi … ” (I saw … I saw … ), a crucial verb shift whose lucidity relies on an opening of the eyelids that had been closed in the fear and cowardice of Description of the Lie (ignoble traits which had, paradoxically, in a zone of betrayals, become virtues for survival). The pack of animals in Gamoneda having recognized and hearkened to the voices of the dead (“Each distance holds its silence, / headstones attended by animals that haul calcium until their death” [Description, 95]), the sculpting and erection of gravestones impinges on the pneumatic poet. This obligation to craft headstones where disappearances have been registered requires precision but also a sight that peers into animal depths, and an inward hearing that returns us to the rust of the tongue: “I hear steel simmer. Precision is dizziness. / Your hands open the eyelids of the abyss” (Gravestones 31).
Each of Gamoneda’s gravestones is composed in the manner of a Rimbaudian illumination in which the seen exhausts the truth functions of language, instigating a radical transformation of lyric articulation. If “the tongue exhausts itself in truth” (33), then the eyes follow suit, learning to doubt the solidity of their seeing, trusting the rust rather than the steel, the fungal decay rather than the pure unmolested fruit. Yet the two substances, the November rust and the chronic steel, dependent upon an ontological shift from apparition to disappearance, cohabit a chemical and philosophic hypostasis. We return, again, to the Rilkean line (Ein Hauch um nichts), the hollow interior in which silence, the objectless pneuma, suddenly begets two corporealities, two tongues that simultaneously temporalize the becoming-animal and the zoon politikon, the birth pangs of speech and the decay of language, the rust on the abandoned blade and the cruel steel in the machinery of death.
In the hollow interior of God, oh living dove,
I forced you to read the silence. And you glowed.
You are corporeal in two abysses,
blue between two deaths, two physical tongues.
Oh final dove, soon it will be November.
* * *
All the animals join in a large groan. I hear old age whistle.
Maybe you think of disappearances.
Talk to me so I may know the purity of useless words. (Gravestones 37, 39)
Gamoneda, who stages a tenebrous reemergence to life in Description of the Lie, frames in Gravestones a full and lucid return to the joys and declinations of poetic language, one whose very objectlessness occasions the possibility of a new poetics for elegizing the disappeared.
2. “Poetry is the relation of how one approaches death.” Antonio Gamoneda, interview by Francisco Martinez Garcia, “El poeta Antonio Gamoneda me habla del tiempo,” in Gamoneda: Una poética temporalizada en el espacio leonés (Leon: Universidad, 1991), 42–44.
4. Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, trans. Brian Massumi (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987), 32. Wellman also suggests that Gamoneda’s poetic is a line of flight that “enacts processes that place perception before meaning and in that sense has something to do with the rhizomatics of Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari” (2).
5. “The poem is a ‘lie’ unlike existential or socio-historical lies — the lies codified by conventional ethics — by virtue of an assemblage of formal, material features which constitute it as a ‘radical’ or ‘poetic reality.’” Daniel Aguirre Oteiza, “‘A Different Denial’: Politics and Poetics in Antonio Gamoneda’s Description of the Lie”; included as an afterword to Wellman’s translation, Description of the Lie (Greenfield, MA: Talisman House, 2014), 148–65.
8. “Lápidas ha sido escrito por un animal […] Gamoneda es una voz … Gamoneda es un animal” (Gravestones has been written by an animal […] Gamoneda is a voice … Gamoneda is an animal”): Julian Jimenez Heffernan, epilogue to Lápidas, by Gamoneda, 88, 95.
A review of Jill Magi’s 'Labor'
From the beginning mesmerizing repetition sequence of Jill Magi’s hybrid poetics-essay-fiction-nonfiction-poem-cycle, Labor is immersed in its title. Opposite of clichéd treatments of the subject, Labor is the real deal in its unconcealed embedding of the subject, so much so that the reader does not even notice such embedding. I thoroughly “got it” and was struck by the title living up to the name. Not because of doubt of the author — but because often a creative work purports to be about work — and it is — and it isn’t. Magi’s Labor lives and breathes it — fully on a poetic and activist level — through archival documents, real work experiences, fictionalized accounts, and poetry, while taking us on a journey in a key storyline (among others) about what’s now been called the plight of the adjunct.
There ain’t no separate-poet-writing-about-work here or the arbitrary distinction that occurs sometimes: drum roll please — we have here — a worker who is also a poet —whoo hoo — the critics sez. Opposite that classist stance, Magi and her work embrace and are the concept of labor from the often difficult to fully articulate position of being working-class yet (in all of this definition’s complexities) in the academy — and being in the academy often comes with the stereotype of the professor as the cool, all knowing, I-love-what-I’m-doing kind of portrayal. Among several storylines, the most prominent sections of Labor show the downsides of class-stereotyping and present a sharp investigation into the now big elephant in not only rooms, but buildings: the adjunct. The investigation of this view comes off subtly in Labor. From the quiet humiliation of being asked over and over “are you faculty?” (40) to simply take home a discarded wooden index drawer or to be told by a college president “there is no money for full-time jobs” (80), anyone who is an adjunct can attest to sulking feelings of cringe-and-carry-on.
This tragic (sic) of the adjunct is brilliantly told alongside stories from the “real of the archive” (as Magi notes in the acknowledgments) from NYU’s Tamiment Library and Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives, something which feels oxymoronic. My first thought is the janitors who have to dust and mop the archive space, in one of the most exclusive schools in the world. An archive dedicated to labor on a near top floor somewhere, quietly sitting there. Well. Magi was quietly sitting there and through her labor of research on labor, we learn: fiction that tells the truth, truth woven into fiction, lineages of past workers, and condescending (a la “are these for real”?) teaching guides (that Magi subverts), in addition to a primary speaker’s own tribulations with being “contingent,” a word I barely knew before I joined this work “force.” What a force it is, and isn’t, as Magi shows us how her speaker again and again is confronted with cancelled classes or nonrenewal of “appointments,” and survival strategies while teaching many students without a lot of stable resources like one’s own office and supplies. It feels fly by night:
“Are not able to offer” “next semester” “unfortunately due to” (35)
Which is how the lost narratives that Magi finds in NYU’s Labor Archive (it feels so strange typing that) feel, and then Magi grounds them and pulls them from their flying, and pauses for a moment in the clearness of day. We are given a meta-meta treatment of the archive’s treatment of real people who toiled, and in that meta-meta-ness we see how no archive could ever do justice to the struggle of the working-class, poor-working class, and laborer-class — shown by Magi in all its hypocrisy and truths.
A particularly affecting sequence involves the words “work” and “labor” broken down into phrases for bibliographic/card catalog purposes. Through the slow pull-out of phrases — “work … day as unit of”; “distinction between, and hobby” (9) and “its discontents” (11), and so on — we follow until it builds to a crescendo (I can still hear Rodrigo Toscano’s intonating reading of it at Labor’s New York release event) and one is left feeling bereft at all these fragmentary descriptors of something so real and painful when considering classism and “lack of” labor.
Magi makes us look at labor in a way we might have never before. Like a hybrid tapestry, she weaves a narrative, a beautiful, complex nonlinear one with different types of writing to explore labor inside out. We feel the emotions of the primary speakers (who I presume incorporate experiences of Magi herself) and the tortured routine of the adjunct who “leaves the projector on ignoring the sign PLEASE TURN ALL EQUIPMENT OFF” (41). Magi is adept at showing the multilayered affects of how archiving, while showing us hidden information we need to know, can do a disservice to real actualities of “labor” and “protests” and “work.” Yet without the archive, maybe we wouldn’t have had this book. It’s a complicated mix, and Magi is acutely aware of it and working with this double entendre to the max.
Of course sitting alone in an archive pondering labor and work could bring up questions of authenticity, but then again, we need this pondering because not enough of it is happening on labor and work. Of course someone like Magi, and those sensitive to class issues, can see the simultaneous need and awkwardness of sitting in a document room, writing, dreaming, and thinking of the workers before us. Magi says so herself, with comments on the workers who bring her the archives, noticing if they want to go home; doubting herself occasionally “[I] worry that the librarian has figured out that I have no research plan” (47), which bring up thoughts about class inclusivity and the academy. I understood those conflicted feelings and that’s why none of the oxymoronics stated previously about this project matter — the project matters.
There’s a feeling of banging one’s head against the wall that Magi and her primary speakers experience when trying over and over again to find permanent work as a “contingent” as section [8.4] says:
in the trend toward hiring part-time workers. (68)
And with her and her speaker’s “academic-ness” being questioned over and over. And still being so while in the midst of this very project we are reading. The layers are confoundingly genius. Even the cover of the book is (by Magi) hand-stitched images that further drive home the labor put into the book. What pained me the most were the exchanges with higher ups in education admin — so slight, to avoid any controversy — that suggested the speaker was not worthy.
Labor gets another definition in this work because when we think working class, we think factories. We think industrial. It gets murky. We don’t think: adjunct: working class. To spin poetics out of such dichotomy, Magi pays attention to the rhythm of words she finds in the archive; their intonation and oddness in their archival categorizing once taken out of contexts (sic), as well as her existence in the archive, doing this work and the mere fact of being an adjunct with an uncertain future, illustrated by found texts incorporated into Labor:
A study conducted in 2009 found that persistent
perceived job insecurity was a powerful predictor
of poor health and might even be more damaging
than actual job loss. (22)
This leads to my favorite and most affecting parts of the work: the “handbook” sequences, which work as an “alternative employee handbook” that Magi says (in the acknowledgments) she was encouraged by a colleague to write. These handbook sequences are passages of pithy beauty that sneakily subvert, critique, and comment without being didactic. We can look to Magi’s “Handbook 2.1,” my favorite. Instead of the writing being on the wall — well, it’s in the book — read it, visualize it, and see it clear as day:
Create a ritual space for the end of LABOR.
Take bank statements from the past five years and enlarge. Transform into blueprints and tile a whole wall with the paper that will turn brown. These posters announce a big life change. “The writing is on the wall,” as they say … (30)
These rituals share the company of CAConrad-somatic-ian urges and Linda Montano-esque endurance performance feats that bring the “labor” and the “archive,” I’m tempted to say, “closer to fine” — to quote the infamous Indigo Girls song, or more concretely, bridging the body and the theory and the reality, blasting open the archive and academy. One of my favorite handbook “rituals” says more than any million-page-view ranting of the plight of adjuncts and does so with more thought-provokingness and dreaming to get me on an otherworldly plan and new place in thinking:
Create your own offer of tenure:
An offer of tenure may be written, typed up, and
printed out on institutional letterhead, folded,
addressed to you, stamped, mailed, ripped open, and accepted.
Unfold this letter and soak in tea for an historical
look. You are head of your time.
Place this letter in a file folder labeled “My Employment.” (51)
Maybe I’ll stick my file somewhere, maybe the NYPL picture files under T for you know what. Magi’s work got me inspired to create, think, deconstruct, protest, and rebel again, just when I thought I was out of steam. Reading those million-comment pages on the Chronicle about the adjunct’s plight doesn’t take me to the same place. There’s a feeling about Magi’s book that calls you to pause, reflect, to try try again, to subvert. I am reminded of two lines:
How to define poverty? Did I mean poetry?
This is about a good job. (14)
Magi’s work should be required reading for labor-themed courses in sociology, education, economics, literature. For all students thinking of working in teaching and poetry. For our government officials deciding on the plight of the adjunct forever it seems right now.
Labor joins a select group of works that dedicate a full poetic-hybrid book to work themes. Only a handful come to mind which rival the level of investigation here: Karen Brodine’s Woman Sitting at the Machine, Thinking, Mark Nowak’s Shut Up, Shut Down, and Yedda Morrison’s Crop. This group of excellent hybrid writing does not back down for a page from the labor topic and is genuine. Brodine’s includes hard-to-forget sequences when the woman is indeed thinking at the typewriter like Magi is thinking between the archival pages. That is thinking beyond the thinking she is supposed to be doing in that archive room. Nowak’s tome to Buffalo’s Bethlehem Steel workers and where his family worked incorporates photos, conversation, and the overheard into a moving poetic-non-fiction work on work and its decline. Magi’s book joins this company with a topic that hasn’t been explored before quite in depth: the adjunct.
The beauty of Labor and its “handbooks” is that it reads as a critical guide to documenting the archive. The archive! Documenting how the documents are documented. How we react to the documents. How useful are the documents. This is where it begins: preconceived notions, stereotypes, judgments. If we can get more people like Magi meta-documenting maybe we can solve more injustices of perception — and its attendant realities.
And so here I am reading a document (Labor) of documenting the archive which is comprised of documents that document other things, in this case, work — which is what the author is doing: working on documenting documenting and subverting the documenting of — with rituals — work. I am sitting here reading this, working on understanding how all these documents work. I am writing this review of a doc of a doc of a doc. Tomorrow I too will face a class, not really a prof, but they call me a prof, and I will leave into the night, neglecting to shut the equipment down or turning the projector off.
The weekend at the college didn’t turn out like you planned
The things that pass for knowledge I can’t understand (Steely Dan, “Reelin’ in the Years”)
A review of Arkadii Dragomoshchenko's 'Endarkenment'
During glasnost in August 1989, Lyn Hejinian, along with Michael Davidson, Ron Silliman, and Barrett Watten, attended the first international avant-garde writers’ conference, “Language — Consciousness — Society,” in the Soviet Union since the Russian Revolution. One of the main organizers of the event was Arkadii Dragomoshchenko, whose book, Endarkenment: Selected Poems, was published by Wesleyan University Press earlier this year. In the early 1990s, Hejinian became one of the first American translators of Dragomoshchenko, working with Elena Balashova on the Sun & Moon titles Description and Xenia. Throughout the ’90s and into the 2000s, Dragomoshchenko’s connections to the American poetry scene, particularly with language writing, continued to develop through correspondence and travel to the States. During one of Dragomoshchenko’s last visits to the US, Charles Bernstein hosted him at the Kelly Writers House for a reading and interview. Less than two years later, in September 2012, after a diagnosis of advanced lung cancer, Dragomoshchenko passed away.
Endarkenment provides a solid career overview. For those already familiar with the poet’s work, this selected may seem too brief. In the newcomer’s hands, however, the book should feel just right. Edited by Eugene Ostashevsky, the selections are the work of six talented translators and come from three different collections. “Dragomoshchenko’s Russian,” Ostashevsky’s engaging essay that closes the book, discusses some of the translation challenges in Dragomoshchenko’s work and links the poet’s sensibility to Osip Mandelstam and Alexander Vvedensky.
In Leningrad: American Writers in the Soviet Union, a collaborative chronicle written by Davidson, Hejinian, Silliman, and Watten, Hejinian describes an insightful exchange with Dragomoshchenko over the notion of Western subjectivity. For Russians, the notion of an individual self is virtually nonexistent. The near impossibility of subjectivity is even embedded in the Russian language, according to Hejinian. While Russian seems to steer towards the communal, English steers towards one’s individual perception of the world. During their conversation about Eastern and Western notions of selfhood, Hejinian suggests, “many of us wish to overcome [subjectivity]. We think that if we can surpass or supersede the individual self we can achieve a community.” Presumably, the “us” she mentions primarily refers to the Language writers with whom she is attending the conference. Hejinian links Western subjectivity with Protestantism when she notes, “A Protestant person stands entirely alone speaking to God.” Following this line of thought, Dragomoshchenko draws connections with Russian Orthodoxy:
Protestants go to church to mail a letter to God, the church, it’s like a post office. The Orthodox church — the building is not symbolic — it is considered to be the real body of God, and Orthodox people too are God because they are together there, not alone, and speaking, by the way, has nothing to do with it.
When Hejinian responds by saying that Westerners have a universal feeling of alienation, Dragomoshchenko deftly sums up the difference this way: “You are afraid of your finitude, and we are afraid of our infinitude.”
Dragomoshchenko’s astute understanding of a difference between Russian and Western culture may stem from his richly textured relationship to Russian culture during the Cold War. He was born in 1946 in Potsdam, East Germany, where his father was a Soviet Army officer. Before moving to Leningrad in 1969 to study theatre, he grew up in Vinnytsia, Ukraine, where the languages spoken included Greek, Moldovan, Polish, Romany, Ukrainian, and Yiddish, not to mention Russian (ix and 143). That part of Ukraine is a religious crossroads as well, with Catholicism, Orthodoxy, and Judaism simultaneously making their marks (ix). And in the years before Dragomoshchenko’s birth, during Stalin’s Great Purge in 1937–38, Vinnytsia was the site of a massacre of mostly ethnic Ukrainians. By any measure, this is quite a backdrop for one’s youth.
While living in Leningrad, Dragomoshchenko became active in the samizdat culture of the 1970s and 1980s. In an agreement with Soviet authorities to legalize this underground culture, Dragomoshchenko and a few others formed Club 81, but it wasn’t until perestroika that his work was first legally published. As Jacob Edmonds describes in his book, A Common Strangeness: Contemporary Poetry, Cross-Cultural Encounter, Comparative Literature, Hejinian first met Dragomoshchenko in the Soviet Union in 1983, after Alexander Kan had invited the ROVA quartet to perform in Leningrad. To everyone’s surprise the invitation was allowed by the authorities, so ROVA, along with Hejinian, who is married to saxophonist and cofounder Larry Ochs, paid their first visit to the USSR. The album and documentary film that followed ROVA’s visit was called Saxophone Diplomacy.
But no matter how interesting a poet’s background or how significant his literary relationships might be there is no context that defaults to good poetry. A poet must be astute in his milieu. Dragomoshchenko’s awareness of the divide between Western and Russian conceptions of consciousness are only one example of his ability to cleave apart situations and concepts. As someone living the greater part of his life under the Soviet regime, one that aimed to control all forms of production, he was also keenly aware of the tension between the individual and the authority figure, whether that figure is one leader or the manifold state.
“To a Statesman,” translated by Genya Turovskaya, is one of the earliest poems in Endarkenment, and itshows the poet cleaving the situation of actual leadership from the concept of ideal leadership. This poem, like many of Dragomoshchenko’s, engages Greek philosophy. Here, he relies on the Socratic dialogue, “The Statesman.” Written by Plato, the dialogue attempts to define the qualities of a statesman, as something different from sophists and philosophers. According to the dialogue, the statesman is one who knows how to rule justly, with citizens at the center of attention. One of the participants in the dialogue, The Stranger, suggests that this isn’t what actually happens. Rulers have been mere sophists in disguise, the Stranger thinks; they don’t possess the level of specialized knowledge that rulers ought to have. With this in mind, it’s not much of a stretch to make connections to both Communist and post-’91 Russia, or any government for that matter. In the poem, Dragomoshchenko begins with direct address, mixing the ethereal with the quotidian:
When you, Statesman, speak dreams across the notebook,
because the rest menaces night with blue graphite,
and crumbs don’t captivate, nor cast-off clothes,
nor doors, nor veins along the calf, nor eyes,
nor glass in Aegean linen —
for you Stymphalian nightingales magnanimously whistle
and someone thinks just before sleep that once, long ago
you played circular football, smashed your knee to pieces,
the rain washed over your heads and no one was anointed, slated … (13)
Dragomoshchenko tends to layer his poems with reference; such as he does here with those bronze-beaked, man-eating birds from Greek myth, Stymphalian nightingales. Judging from their magnanimous whistling, these birds must view the Statesman favorably, as if the power this figure has is out of human hands. In his essay, Ostashevsky notes that the nightingales also “[assert] the primacy of sound and stylistic aura over philological (and logical) accuracy” (152). This is a tendency common in Dragomoshchenko’s work and one of its greatest pleasures.
Through the next few stanzas Dragomoshchenko indicates a connection, one that goes back to school days, between the speaker of the poem and the Statesman. Readers learn the two were on the same soccer team and that there were awkward experiences with girls (14–15). Instances such as these place the Statesman more firmly in the everyday. Eventually, the speaker exposes the Statesman’s failures at school:
Statesman, you conceive laws,
forgetting that you failed to grasp the rules of simple mathematics;
the same as in school when for the first time you sensed the smell of the girl
you shared your desk with,
when empires crumble like chalk on the lackboard, and you didn’t
get your hands on the dress and if someone did,
then it was no one. (15)
In Dragomoshchenko’s view, failed leadership may have its roots in one’s past. How can a leader conceive laws when that leader could not grasp the rules of simple mathematics?
What happens to the central character is only part of the driving force of Dragomoshchenko’s poem. Turovskaya’s translation further underscores the Statesman’s deficiency. She makes a wise choice when she invents a word such as “lackboard.” The word simultaneously calls to mind what we expect, a blackboard, and a void. With Dragomoshchenko’s text as a base, Turovskaya’s adept translation captures some of the common elements — intrigue, humor, and melancholy— of a Dragomoshchenko poem. Ostashevksy’s essay once again provides further insight. With this particular poem, he describes how the gender of the Statesman, in the original Russian, shifts. Turovskaya made the choice to put the gendered pronoun in the third person because of differences between languages (150). Neither Ostashevky nor Turovskaya indicate where those shifts occur, but many readers, at least this reader, would be curious to see them. But perhaps that would overcomplicate the English-language poem. Translating Dragomoshchenko’s work can’t be easy, making it all the more impressive that the six translators featured here have made invigorating English-language poems of the originals.
Endarkenment foregrounds Dragomoshchenko’s investigation into the materiality of language. In a poem such as “there they go, writing poems,” he focuses on the relevance of the written word: “Configurations of letters plugged / into unstoppable machines of interference” (97). Later in the same poem: “Be articulate, do not avoid the sense of responsibility” indicates his interest in finding appropriate expression. That the line incidentally calls to mind Robert Duncan’s definition of responsibility, the ability to respond, makes it seem as though the poem is participating in an ongoing international discourse. The interrogative quality of this poem also conveys the sense of doubt that can plague a writer. For Dragomoshchenko, though, doubt seems to enable, rather than paralyze, his writing. “Nasturtium as Reality” closes the book on a note that stresses “[a]n attempt,” not the ultimate description of an observation, for the form of the ultimate takes its shape through eavesdropping or “a glance over someone else’s shoulder” (107). There is “the anticipation of the resulting whole —” (107), that, with the lineation’s interruption or eruption, suggests the poem, or nasturtium, is a vessel that embodies the event or crisis just before it is about to happen.
One of the richest poems in the book, “Reflections in a Golden Eye,” comments on the various tensions between description and reality, and considers, perhaps not surprisingly, the nature of translation. When reading much of the work in Endarkenment, one is reminded that all writing is translation. Dragomoshchenko asks whether the language we use actually captures experience, whether it can actually describe the objects we see and the emotions we have. In the second section of “Reflections,” he writes:
Translation — is a taming, transition
into possession of address, the itinerary a variable —
so this is the table? masonry? three fissures?
Let us suppose that everyone has a box
in which there would be something
that we call a “beetle”[.] (73)
Perhaps it is language itself, not writing, that is the translator. As Dragomoshchenko suggests, translation tames, it is a transition, and it is on a variable itinerary. Itineraries offer very distinct kinds of transition, and under any circumstance can be destabilizing.
Here, the poet isn’t commenting on the translation one experiences while reading Russian poems in English. Dragomoshchenko is more macroscopic. He doubts language’s aptitude for precision. The voice asking the straightforward question, “so this is a table?” is suspicious. But this voice is also willing to engage in the exercise: “Let us suppose that everyone has a box.” For Dragomoshchenko, it seems that language requires some sort of agreed-upon meaning. He isn’t so suspicious of language, however, that he can’t move within it. He clearly thinks language has power, otherwise why would he have written the poems he did? His work embodies the paradox of being a poet: seeing the power of language while also seeing through it.
From Lyn Hejinian’s perspective, at least as she describes in her foreword to Endarkenment, Dragomoshchenko’s exposure to various languages during his childhood in Ukraine laid a foundation for understanding “language’s habit of producing simultaneously convergent and divergent meanings” (ix). While Hejinian is primarily referring to language itself in her comments, it seems fair to apply her idea more broadly to Dragomoshchenko’s work. Throughout, he ably dissects structures of meaning, making it possible for readers to see where discrepancies exist.
Perhaps his ability to see what others may miss stems from one of his more private childhood experiences, looking through the holes in his grandmother’s fence. In Hejinian’s application of these details, related to her in a letter from Dragomoshchenko, she uses the language of the camera to characterize their significance:
These were the apertures through which he made his first conscious observations of the world, irregular circles of sensation. They were portals but they became over time, emblematic, too, of the aporias that puncture consciousness and that neither knowledge nor speculation can ever fill. (ix)
The word aperture fittingly describes Dragomoshchenko’s work. In a camera, the aperture isn’t what the viewer looks through; it’s the part of the camera that controls the amount of light that reaches the film. The poem, for Dragomoshchenko, is the exposed film. This is where readers experience his talent most directly, but that’s not his actual talent. Dragomoshchenko’s true gift is his understanding of how to adjust the aperture according to his subject. He knows when to take in small amounts of light and when to run the risk of overexposure, without burning up the frame.
Riding's 'Contemporaries and Snobs'
In writing on poetics, we often find a necessary equivocation. Turning over the pages of an old issue of Poetry, you might discover “The Meaning of Simplicity” by poet Yannis Ritsos. In its simplicity the final stanza of the short poem opens questions for the reader, revealing something unsayable and elusively poetic. The poem concludes:
Every single word is an exodus
for a meeting, cancelled many times,
it is a true word when it insists on the meeting.
We are left to wonder if we have met these words, yet we are not in doubt of their poetry: it is insistent; it meets us. Words reach us and reach beyond us, forging “meetings,” creating poetry, these “true words.” Translated from the Modern Greek by Rae Dalven in 1970, these lines appeared over forty years ago, and more than forty years after the publication of Laura Riding’s 1928 book entitled Contemporaries and Snobs, recently reissued by the University of Alabama Press. “The Meaning of Simplicity” should serve as an apt epigraph to this analysis of Riding’s dense book, with its chapters frustrated by her contemporaries’ dismissal of simplicity, haunted, and yet enamored — enraptured, even — by poetry’s potential to put forth “true words” that might give us the long-overdue, welcome, and necessary rendezvous.
Riding does not want poetry to tell us its knowledge, to get us to recognize it as if it were science. The elusiveness of knowing the truth of being — yes, that messy ontological stuff — is what Laura Riding is after in poetry. The efforts of modernists — exemplified by those she considers snobbish, learned poet-critics — to classify, categorize, and analyze poetry is the cancellation of that meeting Ritsos imagines. Riding bemoans any efforts to complicate poetry that interfere with the poet’s ability to create what she calls a “true poem.”
Defining poetry, on page one, as in some sense “the meaning at work in what has no meaning,” Riding argues that poetry must be “personal” — in conflict with the impersonal (1). Criticism, though not singularly bad or wrong, “develops a shame of the person” and gets us further and further away from the genius that is poetry. Riding concludes, “Critically conceived poetry at the present time is historical rather than poetic” (61). Riding is passionate about poetry as an elusive meaning-meaningless creation and yet deeply disappointed in it, time and time again. That meeting has been deferred over and over.
Attempting to both eschew systematic definitions of poetry and knowledge and yet to better understand the definitions’ failures through an unraveling of them, Riding is insistent at the very least on poetry’s significance, even if that significance is impossible to grasp. According to Riding, the poetic intelligence is valuable precisely because it “is an accurate sensation of the unknown, an inspired comprehension of the unknowable” (5). In contrast to concrete intelligence, which “suffers from the illusion of knowledge,” Riding positions herself not unlike a Socrates, wiser for the knowledge of all that is unknown — and unknowable outside the poetic intelligence. Poetic truth is valued above all else.
Riding is unabashedly complicated in her own critique. One of the first things the reader of Contemporaries and Snobs may notice is Riding’s own intelligence, which is learned, vast, and sharp. Often deeply tongue-in-cheek, her saucy tone, meandering through the “shoulds” of critics only to then upend them as bombastic nonsense, is both playful and earnest at once. She is a critic bewailing criticism, a poet crying out for poetry, the smartest woman in the room rolling her eyes at all of us knowingly. One might forget that the book was written nearly a century ago.
The reader already familiar with Riding’s Anarchism Is Not Enough, which was reprinted in 2001, may wish to go deeper into Riding’s critique of T. S. Eliot and the modernist project in general, and its relation to history, literary and otherwise. But one will not come out of the reading of Contemporaries and Snobs with a eureka moment of clarity, announcing, “So this is where I grip the slippery mind of Laura Riding!” The wily Riding remains elusive, and yet with increasing clarity her intellectual project is illumined. This unknowable of poetry is its most essential quality.
Riding’s commitment to poetry energizes her fight against the authority of modernist poet-critics, her challenge to contemporaries who insist on contextualizing, and her dismissal of snobs fixed on historicizing. Riding is bold in her critiques, with allegiances to no one, and the impressive intellectual force of her analyses is invigorating even at their messiest. She is skeptical of the critic, and especially of criticism’s codification of poetry, that systematization which results in the removal of the “truth” from poetry. She attacks “the poet [who] keeps up his illusion of self-respect under a cloak of salvaged history and legend” (39). Riding has no patience for this illusion, these snobbisms. Her investigation of the relationships between poetry and society, the poet and the poet’s work, the critic, critical reception, and the art itself, reveals Riding as profoundly passionate about poetry’s importance, while the nature of that importance remains elliptical, even equivocal. This, it turns out, is precisely the point, and precisely the reason that we must resist precision of definitions, uniformity, and the seductions of criticism itself.
Riding, a confident critic herself, does not altogether dismiss criticism, but limits it to the responsibility of making sense of poetry and history, a fraught endeavor. As a critic, she draws the reader through her own sense-making of centuries of English poetry in the chapter “Poetry and the Literary Universe,” the first dense part of Contemporaries and Snobs. The overwhelming problematic she identifies in this history is not with critics per se, but with poets who write under the problematic influence of critical discourse. Work that asserts the importance of “the contemporary time-sense” — poetry in the thrall of what she calls the Zeitgeist — is for Riding anathema to true poetry. Poets who write asserting that the Zeitgeist is essential to writing poetry of significance are more important as recorders of history than as poets. These poets include the likes of Byron and Goethe, whose “poetry died as it was being written” (10). As an antidote to the imposition of doctrine by critical authorities, Riding calls for “a bold reinstatement of the person in poetry” (17). The poet, explains Riding, needs to return to the personal so as not to be swept away by the “concrete intelligence,” otherwise known as the Zeitgeist, rather than the “poetic intelligence” (18).
Since poetic intelligence is something that can’t be pinned down, it is not concrete. In order to express this, the poet must resist the lure of the Zeitgeist. Forcing “historical effort” on the poet, as prescribed by Riding’s contemporaries, hinders expression, hampers what Riding calls true poetry. Instead, it creates a “group poetic mind” (54) whose values are snobbish, imitative, and limiting. The poet-critics’ rapture with tradition inevitably leads to this problem, even as it struggles to distinguish itself from that tradition. Insisting that what we fight against is doomed to remain close, in relation by a destructive intimacy, Riding here, as in Anarchism Is Not Enough, calls for a kind of radical intellectual pacifism. Riding’s work argues against the critic’s insistence on absolutes or “first principles,” argues for resisting the attraction to assessments. Dangerously, through systematization and uniformity, poetry might fall in line with critics, making them able to apply standards and perform assessments of poetry’s art. Riding laments poets who fail to assert an expression of ineffable poetic truths to instead become cogs in the critical machinery of the Zeitgeist. The place of the critic is then a short imaginative leap from an intellectual fascist — not an untimely comparison in a book composed in Europe between two world wars. In Contemporaries and Snobs she writes: “Underneath the bustle and clutter of historical interpretations, underneath the disguise of a category — poetry can be free to be what it has always been, an entity which can lend itself to the absolute entirety of barbaric humanity or to the relative entirety of civilized personality, but which remains fundamentally independent and unaffected by historical changes; its purpose being not to express history, humanity or personality, but itself” (59). Riding stridently, even wishfully, asserts that poetry — such as the work of Gertrude Stein, her celebrated example here — might yet transcend the trap of an autocratic hegemony of rote sophistication if it can resist the temptations of the historical moment.
Contemporaries and Snobs is complex, smart, and decidedly scolding in tone. It qualifies as a rant, a rant of the most polished and impressive sort. Unraveling the thread of Contemporaries and Snobs is challenging work, but worth the effort for readers interested in the concerns that matter to Riding. She rails against the poet who writes in the thrall of the Zeitgeist, and as a critic she is buoyant and blistering at turns, celebrating poetry and critical of its withering under the burden of criticism itself. Riding wants writers to seize their critical contempt and fling the sense of duty to the historical moment out the window, get rid of the snobbisms and sentiments that collide to dilute the poetic mind. The poet must be “free from the time-sense” (59). Riding does not tell us what this resultant poetry would look like, because it is never formulaic, systematic, or uniform. She criticizes her contemporary poetry for being “mechanistic” (38). Riding makes the significance of poetry itself feel important, although categorizing it at all is an exercise in futility. Riding champions what cannot be captured, the truth that exists outside the proscribed limits of language, of time, of the Zeitgeist.
“Criticism can only have authority over the poem if the poet’s mind was from the start not sufficiently clear, sufficiently free of criticism; if it obeyed an existing, that is, a past order of reality, rather than a present order of reality, that is, the order of the things which do not yet exist” (23). The past reality might be consistent with the poetic, in that the poetic might have transcended the time-sense. Riding asserts quandaries without really giving us a means to unravel them, yet the density of thought in which she situates her puzzles gives the ideas their significance. We pluck some wisdom from her erudition, querulousness, and insights, ponder them in our own time, on our own terms, through our own circuits or at our own ever-sprawling limits. The sprawling nature of her own thicket is what allows the reader’s mind to spread, to build and create, escaping the perils of didacticism that Riding would have derailed.
Earnestly seeking poetry, Riding tells us, “the pure poem is arrived at by subtracting the poem from itself.” How, we might ask, does this happen? “Only its limits remain, its points of origin and of communication.” The poem is its own shell, its own impossibility of achieving itself. “The rest is a time and space necessity between them, the place, presumably, which the poetic mind leaves to be filled in by the contemporary mind” (23). Riding calls to mind Anne Carson, who writes in Eros, the Bittersweet: “The words we read and the words we write never say exactly what we mean.” And yet, the desirous reach persists in Carson, even as in Riding the dedication to that true poetry remains. “In any act of thinking,” Carson insists, “the mind must reach across this space between known and unknown, linking one to the other but also keeping visible their difference. It is an erotic space” (171). For all its querulousness, Riding’s urgency is in a desire for some more intense poetic knowing. Riding’s intellectual rigor is always on the side of poetry, of the life of the mind that escapes explicability.
2. The final chapter of Contemporaries and Snobs is dedicated to a discussion of Edgar Allan Poe, giving another opportunity to critique the critics, to challenge the celebration of this American writer, with Eliot as a selected illustration of critical snobbery.
3. Riding’s writing is informed by a mind deeply involved in its materials. She had, after all, cowritten A Survey of Modernist Poetry (with Robert Graves) the previous year, in 1927, and had been active as a poet and critic for several years.
4. It is not surprising that Riding later went on to create her famous projects A Dictionary of Related Meanings in the 1930s and Rational Meaning: A New Foundation for the Definition of Words, published in 1974. These projects both attempt to limit our meanings of words to get not at a clearer understanding of vocabulary, but at a more accurate understanding of all that is impossible to contain in language, no matter how malleable we might try to make it.
5. As a strong critic of the men dominating the discourse of her time — and the entire twentieth century during which she lived — Riding treats the work of Edith Sitwell with as much attention as that of William Wordsworth, and rather more than Alexander Pope (30–31). Her analysis assumes a reader familiar with the literary history on which she is commenting, a reader familiar with Dryden and Pope and Milton, who might appreciate her identifying “the amazing critical banalities of Wordsworth” without explication.
A review of ‘Writing Surfaces: Selected Fiction of John Riddell’
Writing Surfaces: Selected Fiction of John Riddell presents a sampling of the Canadian poet’s work from 1969 through 1994. Though some of Riddell’s works can be found online, including at UbuWeb, most of his work is difficult to find in print. Writing Surfaces is a concise and accessible introduction to Riddell’s writings, one which hopefully will serve to raise Riddell’s profile among a new generation of readers.
Riddell began publishing work in the 1960s and was a contemporary of — and often cohort with — bpNichol and Steve McCaffery. Like much of the work of Nichol and McCaffery, Riddell’s work probes the interaction between language’s material embodiment and semantic function, the representation of this interaction in and through media, and the effects of this interaction on composition itself. Riddell’s poetics come out of the concrete poetry tradition, refracted through his experiments with the process of composition and through his highly ludic sensibility.
Characteristic of Riddell’s works presented in this collection is the emphasis on fissures, joints, and seams. Most easily recognizable are the visual seams, such as the drawn lines separating and joining text and non-text in “à deux,” the rigid boundaries between neighboring texts/spaces in “letters” and more generally, the boundaries between the legible and the illegible in many of the works in the book. But one also finds thematic seams: juxtapositions of sense and nonsense, fiction and documentary, abstraction and particularity. And Riddell employs seams on the verbal level, perhaps the most literal and obvious example being the word “we” in the poem “we,” which acts as interstitial mortar in the alphabetical series of verbs out of which the poem is built.
In “a note on form” introducing his book Criss-Cross: A Textbook of Modern Composition, Riddell couches his practice in terms of a wider poetic syncretism:
a synthesis may not be desired / is certainly not effected
by displaying both schools under the same roof still
when brot together the prospect of marriage does not
seem as remote as may have been supposed
By the term “schools” in the quotation above, Riddell is referring to what he characterizes as traditional and avant-garde approaches to composition. Many of the pieces in Writing Surfaces are exercises in combinations of traditional genres with nontraditional/avant/experimental structures and processes. “Pope Leo, El ELoPE: A Tragedy in Four Letters,” one of Riddell’s more well-known works, is a story told in comic book form using text composed only with the letters “e,” “l,” “o,” and “p.” Another story, “à deux,” is a story of relationships (including perhaps one between two characters named Mark and Katherine) which is disrupted, blotched, and framed by stains and doodles on the page:
Some of the marks are reminiscent of rings left by a wet glass, of spills, and of smudges, a simulation of the way the accidents of life shape memory and perception, and consequently, narrative. Another example is “5 ways,” which is also a story of relationships involving multiple couples. The text is printed in long linear fragments of a few lines (sometimes just a single line) that are positioned facing in various directions on the page. The amount of these fragments per page increases through the piece, and the lines increasingly overlap so that the visual interference builds. The reader is forced to try and disentangle the text and piece together the narrative, echoing the storyline of characters trying to understand their own feelings and make sense of their relationships.
Riddell’s “writing surface” is a heterogeneous one. His model of the poem is a set of language attached to a set of nonlinguistic elements, gathered and held together, producing interior borders that the reader is meant to cross and recross, effecting seams, affecting reading. Riddell’s joining of linguistic to nonlinguistic elements can be read as the contemporaneous reverse of the visual art world’s strategy to incorporate language, which had gathered steam in the 1960s. Riddell recognizes and revels in the fact that language is not a closed system but is part of wider cultural activity. His poems play along with the boundaries between writing and other visual phenomena. In “Pope Leo,” words and line drawings intertwine in and through cartoon panels, drawn characters, and text torqued by and through the lines of the frames. In both “surveys” (excerpted below) and “glass,” bits of language occupy space alongside drops of ink (or is it paint?).
In “morox,” a text in a barred-spiral shape (but in a predominately prose-like format in terms of line vis-à-vis margin) spread across five panels, language fades into and out of various forms of illegibility (words turn from the lexical to the nonlexical, type blurs into blackness, letters break free from the bonds holding them to words and float about the page).
Given the prevalence of boundaries and joints, it’s not surprising that the central figure operating throughout Writing Surfaces is the interface. An interface is a threshold permitting a multilateral (often simply bilateral) exchange of information, the seam for negotiation between different assemblages (and often different media). Here interfaces even make appearances in the subject matter of the poems. For example, the window, the architectural interface between the interior and the exterior, dominates the cartoon poem, “Pope Leo,” dotting the facades behind which the action takes place and echoing the panel frames of the cartoon layout. “Criss-Cross” is a narrative constructed out of interfaces: Riddell presents a series of concrete-poetic reproductions of the encounters with language throughout a day in the life of a fictional everyman, Jim. Verbal units within “Criss-Cross” include the face of a clock, the label on a vitamin bottle, and a subway token. Lyrics to the Kinks’ song, “Well Respected Man,” serve as the “text-track” to the piece, running like a film soundtrack along the right side of the page, both accentuating the filmic surfaceness of the page and reinforcing the narrative thread. By taking the language encountered in the world, removing the graphic pizzazz and contextual flavor, and mapping it onto a two-dimensional page in simple courier type — that is, by changing media — Riddell demonstrates the banality of the message and emphasizes the monotony of the working life of the character, Jim.
derek beaulieu and Lori Emerson, the editors of Writing Surfaces, describe Riddell’s writing in their introduction as a study in the “writing of writing” (2) — writing taking writing itself as the subject. And their selection emphasizes this aspect of Riddell. For example, a high percentage of the lexicon in the poem “we” is language related: “we demur we denote we deny.” “Criss-Cross” is a piece of writing about how the writing we encounter is presented to us in our everyday experience, estranged both by its translation into a different typography and 2-D space and by its situation within a narrative framework. The pieces “watching” and “in take” both offer ironic takes on the notion of “close reading,” employing xerography and the photocopier’s zoom function. “Watching” (excerpted below) is perhaps the more interesting of the two, a series of snapshots zooming out from a text, so that the letters which at first are mere black figures on a white space come to situate themselves within a text that has to do with television.
The piece emulates the experience both of the camera and of the TV viewer on the other side of the interface; the poem is a gesture in which watching and reading are joined in a continuum. Riddell writes with the interface as model of writing, then: the poems often resemble APIs, or application program interfaces, a type of writing about writing (namely writing about the code that a person, the programmer, wants to interact with). His writing, focusing mostly on writing as a visual phenomenon, is often a demonstration of how writing and reading are both forms of the overwriting of the perceiving subject.
Ultimately what Riddell reminds us about writing (and the flipside of the interface, reading) is that they are not independent from other, traditionally “non-writing” activities, whether it’s watching, gesturing, or drawing. While Riddell’s writing is by no means the only to make these points, it is Riddell’s playfulness and craft, on evidence in Writing Surfaces, that make the experience more than just an intellectual exercise.
1. John Riddell, Criss-Cross: A Textbook of Modern Composition (Toronto: Coach House Press, 1977), 7–8. Reissued by ubu editions, 2013.