Bob Grenier's 'CAMBRIDGE M'ASS'
Breadcrumbs would violate library rules, so I tore up notebook paper to leave my trail. I was in the Poetry Collection in the library of the University at Buffalo reading CAMBRIDGE M’ASS, a book-length poetry broadside, 49 by 40 ¾ inches, with about 275 poems by Robert Grenier scattered across it. A diligent scholar, wanting to read it through without getting lost, I needed a way to mark off each poem as read or not and to count them. Reading it this way was like going for a walk in the woods and trying to count each tree individually, marking each one off so as not to miss or repeat one.
That’s a foolishly obsessive way to go for a walk in the woods — or to read this work, shoehorning a work that demands a unique reading practice into familiar codex sequencing. In a codex’s predetermined sequence, each page seconds and builds rhetorically upon the page and the pages before it. In a codex collection of poems, someone has already laid a trail through the woods, and conventional reading practice is to follow that trail from the first beaten step to the last. Robert Creeley’s 1968 Pieces impressed Grenier with its ambivalent structure: each part an autonomous moment of attention, each part a cumulative contribution to the series. He has described that formal shimmer in Pieces as “parts are wholes / parts of a whole” and as “the one-one-one, things-following-after-each-other in the enactment of the occasion.” Rather than sharing poems out one to a page in standard publishing practice, it ran groups of lines and stanzas together with sometimes one, sometimes three bullets between them. The bullets either divided off individual poems or linked items in a series. (There’s a theory of time involved here: each moment is distinct, yet each follows directly from the one before it and proceeds into the next — autonomy and contiguity.) The precise function of the bullets is ambiguous, as rhetorically multifunctional as a line break — a level of punctuation stronger than the strophe, but not quite so strong as that next level up, the page-gutter breaks between poems.
Pieces made explicit a neglected aspect of standard reading practice. Each poem in a typical poetry collection is autonomous, but we read it in an arranged sequence. Poems follow one another — “follow” in the sense of both spatial/temporal priority and rhetorical build. As a sequence of images in a poem or a sequence of paragraphs in an essay has its rhetorical/ordinal place, arranged for the sake of some effect, so also does a sequence of poems in a collection have its rhetorical order, each poem its spacio-temporal and rhetorically determined place.
The next step of formal innovation, as Grenier saw it, was to break the sequence apart, to find a way to publish a group of poems such that there was no sense of predetermined order, no sense that any individual poem is building upon or toward any other particular poem in some cumulative rhetoric or even that they have to be read in any particular order. (Sure, one can flip around in any book, but page numbers indicate a prior arrangement that the flipper flouts.) He said in an interview:
So anyway, I thought that Pieces had so much accomplished the serial form, opened up the one-one-one, things-following-after-each-other in the enactment of the occasion, that somehow the only thing to do was to “stop it” and look at separate pieces, because, actually Pieces invites that, invites that possible “development,” and so it’s just a common history of the form, which wouldn’t be interesting except to writers. And so out of that came the desire to reassemble things in sentences for other persons with a tolerance of the difference between one sentence and another. They wouldn’t have to “follow,” but you could build up some kind of continuum which wasn’t a series but was some kind of made juxtaposition of separate elements. But I’ve never actually been interested in build-up of the more-than-one. I always liked the oneness of whatever something is, in itself. I’ve been puzzled by the problem of assembling the single things, which have their own integrity, if you look at them — and after all, it keeps you from being devoured by the onrush of “multi-tasking” responsibilities. I like to look at things singly, and think about them multiply. I don’t like to pile too much stuff up on top of each other, because I get dizzy and actually I can’t think anymore.
Grenier has addressed that “problem of assembling the single things” several different ways. His 1978 book Series: Poems 1967–1971 includes some poems in Pieces-like bullet series (including one called “For Robert Creeley”), and the longest part of the book, “Fall/Winter Family Home,” consists of seventy-four unnumbered pages, two very short poems to a page. In A Day at the Beach (1984), he pushed that practice still further. The whole book lacks page numbers. The one word “MORNING” appears centered on the first page. A third of the way in, a page has only “MIDDAY,” and another third along, a page says, “AFTERNOON/EVENING.” On a watchless day at the beach, those would be the only rough temporal categories that matter, since there would be no necessary or scheduled time to do anything in particular. What time is it, and where are we? Not 3:14 pm or page 61, but just somewhere in the afternoon. All the other pages have three very short poems each. In a typical poetry collection, a page number creates a sense of location. Abstract numeration stretched across the whole book irrespective of content provides the poem’s place, a place within the numerical sequence of the book. In the numberless format of A Day at the Beach, however, a poem’s location has less to do with a place in the overall series (one cannot easily say that a poem is on page 42, but only that it’s — after some paging around to find it — “here”) than with its place on a particular six-poem page spread. Its place is not defined by some transcendent order beyond the page, but by what is right at hand.
The dedication on A Day at the Beach is “for the six directions,” presumably the possible movements in three-dimensional space: up, down, forward, back, right, and left. Such motion would be contiguous, into the immediate space in one of those directions. In abstract numerical space, all numbers have a noncontiguous arithmetic relation to all other numbers. If a poem on page 51 reminds a reader of a poem on page 17, that reader can leap back thirty-four pages and compare them. Where all the pages are alike and numberless, such a search is more difficult. The other poem is back there somewhere, and the reader needs to blaze the trail back to it afresh, scanning pages for landmarks in roughly the area it might be. The looked-for poem is like a ring dropped in the woods: one can’t say exactly where it is, but can retrace steps and scan the ground. Each short poem in the book is autonomous, of course, but it appears as part of a group of six that have a defined spatial relation with one another. These few linguistic incidents are directly at hand, all others vaguely somewhere before or after. Yet the groupings and the sequence of groupings have been given to the readers.
Photograph by Geof Huth.
A more extreme knot-cutting solution to the “problem of assembling the single things” is just to print them all up separately. In the 1970s, Grenier was writing hundreds of short poems, each with Pieces-like attention to the moment. Many of them caught bits of ordinary language. He typed them onto cards so that each poem is presented as a separate object, not as a leaf in a codex attached to and sequenced with other leaves, but as a distinct object of attention. Grenier reports that he displayed them in a room at Franconia College when he taught there in 1971 and ’72 — he claims, perhaps in self-deprecating hyperbole, that nobody ever saw it. A former student of his from Franconia, Allen Bramhall, offers a slightly different, fuller memory of the display:
I remember him hauling out his batch of cards and saying he didn’t know what to do with them. [S]ometime after that he filled a hallway, that was normally given over to displays of photographs and prints, to a … well I want to say a performance of his cards. he pinned them in neat rows and columns on the corkboard. I remember seeing him at it, and there was something of a graffiti artist’s earnestness about where he was doing this. the hallway was rather dark but with the white cards notably brighter. I did not expect the visceral effect of seeing so many of his pieces on display.
This “performance” prefigures both Sentences (individual poems on cards) and CAMBRIDGE M’ASS (wall display of a great number of poems all at once).
In 1978, Michael Waltuch published Sentences, a box with five hundred five-by-eight-inch cards, each with one short poem in the center (as well as a few paratextual cards: title, author, copyright, colophon). The sides of the box fold down to expose a stack of cards, so a reader does not have to dig them out or upend the box to get them out. The box unfolds into a bird shape, and the stack stands upon that bird-shaped base.
The poems are all in the IBM Selectric typewriter font in which Grenier wrote them. The evenly spaced typewriter font gave Grenier control over spacing and disposition of words and letters that, in those pre-PC days, he would otherwise have to cede to a typographer. And besides, is an “l” really so much less important than a “y” that the “l” should cede space to it? An example from the ongoing exchange between father and daughter scattered throughout Sentences:
As I type that on my computer right now, “could you” is longer than “stay here” even though they both have the same number of letters. In Sentences, on the other hand, those two lines are exactly the same width, a solid, stable little block of IBM Selectric typewriter font rather than the slightly top-heavy and leaning Times New Roman on my screen. The only imbalance in the Selectric text is the space between the words, inclined, as is the nature of a request, toward the one being asked something; in the last line, that space moves to center, the four-letter words balanced to either side, enacting the stability of “stay here.” Nor is the Selectic “AMY” such a large, urgent presence over the rest of the text.
Asked by Charles Bernstein, “What’s the relation of one card to another?,” Grenier replied, “None. But you can make one.” That’s superficially true in any collection, of course, with each poem in its own autonomous page-space, but rhetorically and materially bound to the others in a specific order. Sentences, however, offers a potential material form to that ambiguity. One could remove a card from the stack and isolate it. Somebody who owns a copy and finds a particular poem especially evocative could put it up somewhere on its own as a little broadside. Or a reader might arrange and rearrange the cards according to some personal or ephemeral rhetorical impulse, set up small stacks and sequences, or reshuffle the deck to experience novel juxtapositions. The arrangement, order, and juxtapositions can become the reader’s. Elsewhere, in discussing the break from ordinal rhetoric in Sentences, Grenier writes:
Meanwhile, the world was willed to chance, to change, by guaranteeing the separateness, but still finite (at large) possible relations among the communities of the different cards. “Necessary” alliances shewed to be structurally absurd by apparent abundance of actuality-in-possibility, “narrative” would be brought to a stop (but be seemingly infinitely jumping) by the (halt) (oxymoron) brought about by the author, arbitrarily, perhaps, but still in the service of — THAT that rules the waves.
It’s an exuberant & perhaps “youthful” aesthetic/athletic delighting in the actualization of any sequence as a “sentence” that appears to contribute to & record, that that happens — that did happen — over against the myriad things as sequence-structures in language that “might have been” & “weren’t” for that time, that were evident as articulately clattering nonetheless ghosts of possibility & figures from the past — formal resources vastly more potential, all that “didn’t” or “hadn’t” — were constantly struttering about, as possibles-in-actuality always almost before one’s nose?
More force to the democratization of syntax sequence! Demote the fixed! Totalitarian view of what looks like the “normal course of things” inevitably nowadays downfall toward depletion of given planet, begone! Faith in the miracle of the middle structure-world apparently needed/occurring in language, as its process reality (why this one rather than another one — or nothing — here?) — that’s “narrative” in Sentences.
All the possible arrangements and sequences that a codex foregoes, Sentences makes possible. The unbound cards imply all possible stacks and sequences as well as maximum rhetorical liberty for readers. There is no one way to read it, no authorial rhetoric beyond the humble arrangement of letters on each particular card.
And Grenier finds further amusement in the possibility that any given box of cards may be unique. When Waltuch had the cards printed up — five hundred poems for an edition of two hundred boxes — he had the daunting task of assembling 100,000 cards. John Batki (to whom, along with Anselm Hollo, CAMBRIDGE M’ASS is dedicated) offered Waltuch the students in his fiction-writing class at Harvard as a collating crew. Grenier raises the likelihood that a student may have occasionally missed or duplicated a card by mistake. Therefore, except for Grenier’s draft box in the Stanford University Library Special Collections Department, there may not even be a definitive set on which to run the permutations.
But readers do not always encounter Sentences as an object so radically manipulable. Even if the deck has been shuffled, one first encounters it in a particular order. Then, in the process of learning what is in the stack, one might begin to manipulate it. A reader on that first encounter does not, of course, have to read the cards in the order they are stacked, but might cut around in the deck. Flipping the next card or cutting the deck to a card deeper in the stack, one doesn’t know what is coming next any more than one does reading the cards one by one. It’s a blind movement on toward something else unknown (pretty much like life itself). Either way, card by card or in random cuts, a new reader experiences juxtapositions and sequences that neither the author nor the reader has chosen. But the very manipulability of the text means that there is no necessity to this order of the encounter, no authorial intention hanging over any particular sequence, which can be puzzling or even irritating for many readers. It could be in any order; it just happens to be in this one.
Even so, readers tend to respect the order of the stack. Waltuch writes, in an online exchange with Jessica Lowenthal, that he had not expected that sort of obsessive orderliness: “There’s no prescribed way to read the ‘boxed version.’ I do remember observing that most people were careful in their handling of the cards, although this surprised me. One can read the cards one at a time, stacking them back up on top of each other on a new stack, one can lay them out in groups of one’s own arrangement, one can shuffle them, one can pin them to a wall, etc.” In response, Lowenthal writes, “As to your surprise about how carefully readers manipulated the cards: I suspect that now the cards are handled with more care than ever before. I was afraid to touch the version I saw!” The copy of Sentences in the Poetry Collection of the University at Buffalo, for instance, shows precisely this sort of auratic respect. A look along the edge of the stack shows evidence of handling of the top cards (an ever so slight graying from the clean hands of scholars) that decreases to nothing toward the bottom. Obviously we scholars have respected the order and have been reading it as though it were a codex, the form we are most accustomed to.
Somebody who does not own a copy of Sentences (on sale in 1978 for $10 [Watten]) is likely to encounter it in a library’s rare books collection or in a private collection of rare modern poetry. Rarity creates aura. The unconventional form of the box (unfolding onto a plane from which the stack rises rather than untopping to reveal a cavity that contains the stack), the box’s cloth cover and faux-ivory clasps that hold it together, the heavy and broad cardstock of the text: these material details mark the work as something special — as does the lack of easy access to it except through special institutional or personal channels. As Walter Benjamin wrote, “The definition of the aura as a ‘unique phenomenon of a distance however close it may be’ represents nothing but the formulation of the cult value of the work of art in categories of space and time perception.” Sentences is, thus, a relic in the cult of modern poetry, untouchably distant for many readers even as they hold it in their hands, too precious to alter — such intimacy would seem irreverent. So though the form of Sentences suggests there is no necessary order, many readers end up treating some fortuitous order as sacred. Though Lowenthal “was afraid to touch the version [she] saw,” she goes on to write, “I watched as the owner of the box flipped randomly among the cards, producing a reading experience sort of like the online version (without the script), in that I read a set of cards randomized by an external hand.” The owner had a familiarity with the object that the scholar-pilgrim would not presume.
Lowenthal mentions the online version. Though Grenier liked the idea of making Sentences more widely and easily available, he was hesitant to allow it because he thought at first that it would permanently fix the order of poems, creating a canonical sequence. When he learned that Waltuch could write a program to shuffle the sequence for every site visit, he then approved the project. Through the Whale Cloth Press website, the text is no longer rare and difficult to access (though, of course, the box and cards still are). One reads the online version the way Lowenthal read the box someone else owned: “a set of cards randomized by an external hand.” Each access to the site generates a unique random sequence; a reader can go forwards and backwards within that sequence, but upon leaving and then reaccessing the site, repeating a sequence is astronomically unlikely. Nobody can establish any lasting order. When a juxtaposition creates some interesting effect, it is purely ephemeral. The one who delights in it can’t preserve it. Log off, and it’s gone. Having little in the way of temporal extension, those effects occur in a precious present. In a standard codex, I can turn back to a numbered-sequential page spread and resavor a delicious juxtaposition. In A Day at the Beach, I can page through till I find that combination-upon-a-page that I especially liked. If I owned a copy of Sentences, I could save out and set together a combination of cards. The material objects preserve meaning combinations across time and allow a reader to reaccess them.
Photograph by Geof Huth.
The online Sentences emphasizes more than anything else by Grenier the autonomy of each poem within the group. When I read a poem, I am, in the sequence of the reading experience, only here, an otherwise unmarked place within an unmarked expanse. It’s in no designated place that I can return to via a page number or bookmark, nor can I draw it out (abstract it) from the rest of the group and, like a card, give it its own place beyond the group. Because I don’t know where it is, I can’t return to it except by chance encounter. On a particular walk, I can’t place it except via direct contiguity with those next to it, and if I want to return to it, I can’t make a leap that abstracts from the text (no bird’s-eye view from above the woods such that I can see a shortcut), but only by following each poem (“one-one-one, things-following-after-each-other in the enactment of the occasion”) like a string of breadcrumbs back to the place I was looking for. Turn away, and the program eats all the breadcrumbs; finding one’s way back is a stumble through a freshly trackless wood.
That freshness with each reading is exhilarating. Reading the box with familiarity and intimacy (rather than with a sacred awe), a reader can manipulate the text, blaze a path on which to return, build meanings, and make connections that aren’t necessarily ephemeral. With “a set of cards randomized by an external hand,” it’s like reading a codex once again, with an order the readers have had no say in, even less say since readers cannot mark their own way around.
CAMBRIDGE M’ASS, on the other hand, has no obvious order, or even an obvious starting point — no first page, no top card. Without a grid, there is no easy way to follow from the top left corner across and down to the bottom right. That top corner, however, is actually an unlikely starting point.
Geof Huth nonetheless reports trying to read it that way:
As I read the book I read from the left across and then down, but I read in blocks, trying desperately to read every poem and not to read the same poem multiple times. The latter proved impossible, and I’m not sure I’ve read every poem on the poster, but I probably did. After a while, I began to use a ruler to mark my reading.
The work thus invites unconventional reading practices, alternatives to the grid.
Lyn Hejinian, whose Tuumba Press published CAMBRIDGE M’ASS, calls it a “field work,” more like a map, a “poster/map,” than like a conventional book. In such “works,” she writes, “the order of the reading is not imposed in advance. Any reading of these works is an improvisation; one moves through the work not in straight lines but in curves, swirls, and across intersections, to words that catch the eye or attract attention repeatedly.” On a map that lacks a latitude and longitude grid, sites have spatial relations with edges and with other sites on the map, but not with any external, abstract organization. Nothing is (unless with the external aid of Huth’s ruler) specifiably this far right and that far down.
The arrangement is too large and scattered for the eye to form an overall constellation. The large number and lack of any repeating cluster pattern means it is also not quite clear how many there are. (Michael Gottlieb’s 1980 review says there are “c. 265 poems” on the sheet. I counted 275 when I marked them off with paper scraps. But I counted only once, so I have no reason to believe my number is less approximate than his.) Like the number of trees in the woods, they are an imprecise many.
A map-reader doesn’t count up all the towns on the state map, but looks for routes and spatial relations. Nor does the map-reader necessarily begin at the upper left: that area has no special status. One can begin anywhere. If I’m looking for a good route to Galesburg, I’ll begin where I am. I’ll begin in the upper left corner only if I happen to be starting from the Northwest. Otherwise, the starting point could be any place.
Two possible surfaces on which to lay out CAMBRIDGE M’ASS for reading: a wall or a table. Depending on how it is mounted on a wall as well as the height of the reader, different poems would land at eye level and would make for natural starting points. From there, as Hejinian wrote, reading would proceed “in curves, swirls, and across intersections.” As attention wanders out of eye-level range, the reading experience would engage more and more of the body, not just the hands and eyes as in conventional reading: a tippy-toe neck-crane to reach the high ones, a crouch for the low ones. On a table (as I read it), the low ones were the most immediately accessible, and so my reading began most easily at the bottom of the page. Once the reading extended far enough along, I stood up, leaned over, and walked around to the left and right.
Since there was always a decision to make (where to next?) and a repeated need to reposition my body — that is, without the conventionally passive and still acceptance of whatever comes next — the mental and physical aspects of the reading process were full of self-conscious breaks. There is no simply getting absorbed in the text, but always a consciousness of the reading process. This text is something one is doing and enacting rather than just receiving.
Once the reading has begun, where to next? Reading can proceed along many paths and principles, contiguity only the most familiar one. When I read a codex, I read poems in contiguous sequence. Here, without sequence, there is still contiguity, but without a conventional structure for deciding which one is next, the choice is the reader’s own arbitrary ramble. Affective chance selects this one next for its shape or length — a shorter one (perhaps one of the many one-line or one-word poems) because it will take only a moment or a longer one (maybe nine whole lines) because I’m ready, after some short ones, for the heave of attention — or a word that leaps to the eye, maybe a word that echoes something else recently read.
Clusters of connection form. For instance, this poem:
where is a name
stands to the right of
is the one beer to have when you’re having more than one in
and just below
in use long after I
Those title lines — “LAURA,” “KIT,” and “YOU” — seem to suggest these three are about or addressing specific people, but it would take some ingenuity to find a thematic connection between them in the rest of the text. The connection, such as it is, is tenuous, a link of attention rather than of rhetoric.
In Sentences, the texts are isolated in the center of broad cards, inches of white space around each one. One can, of course, as Grenier said, make a connection between them, but it isn’t necessary. So something like “l o i k e w o i s e” (spaces between the letters) appears in splendid isolation so that the reader can appreciate the oddness of the expression on its own. But when the same poem appears in CAMBRIDGE M’ASS, it stands in a small white rectangle, the margins, like those of all the other rectangles, trimmed to fit it. The expression is a response, part of a conversation, apparently a response to something else in the crowd of texts around it. One possible vector of connection begins with this poem:
unable to bear
of the trees
upward fall as
air to heaven
Then it proceeds downward to the right to another instance of natural beauty: “the roses from across the street.” And then to the right of that, an ironic comment on the shared romantic sensibility of those two poems: “l o i k e w o i s e.” Or it may be a comment on the poem above it and slightly to the right, a sort of ironic “yeah, me too” to this:
no pattern of self as
straight line or crooked
meanderings of history as
lived as example for me
“[T]o words that catch the eye or attract attention repeatedly.” A repeated word suggests a rhetorical connection: three poems widely spaced across the sheet begin with the title line “POPLARS,” and since that word is capitalized, the eye may break the contiguity rule to leap a gap between them. Such links create constellations across the sheet. For instance, in the upper right corner, a word picture (very Ian Hamilton Finlay here),
cemetery cove cemetery cove cemetery cove
It connects via “cemetery” with,
— depending on how one decides to punctuate it, either an invitation to another stroll or a bizarre command for those who happen to be standing up for a second. And it connects even more closely with the imagery in,
quarry road sleep
quarry pond sleep
And it links further across the sheet to another with shared imagery and title line:
Attention, therefore, might not always be forward-directed toward completing more of the reading, but backward toward something read before, read anew as part of a constellation rather than as an isolated point of attention. These movements would be nonrectilinear, like the gridless vectors and shapes of the natural world.
And a scholarly reading would, of course, want to be complete, backfilling an area covered by a leap of attention or rounding off the poems in a sector or on an edge before moving onward.
It was originally, of course, sold as a poster, not as an object of study but as something to tack up on a wall and live with. On nonarchival paper, it would, used that way, eventually fall apart. In daily use, on the wall of a home or office, reading would likely be far more casual, less obsessive. Since the poems are all short, it would be easy to take a moment to read one, then read another contiguous one or else another that visually rhymes with it or that in some other way catches the eye. Such casual attention is likely to begin at some arbitrary place and then shift and twist around in no systematic way, unbound by any prior order or transcendent Cartesian-grid pattern of organization — aimlessly free. A reader who lives with it may well return, out of habit, affection, or proximity to eye level, to the same ones each time, come to recognize new or (with different readings) shifting patterns of connections and constellations across the sheet. Without an analytic plan (no ruler, no paper scraps, no breadcrumbs), a reader who lives with it most intimately may never read them all.
Photograph by Geof Huth.
One of the paradoxes of broadsides is that once we put them on our walls, we don’t usually read them anymore. The visual design becomes an icon, a citation of the text, a right-brain gestalt that includes the text and communicates what we remember of it without regularly demanding the focused and detailed left-brain attention of literal reading.  CAMBRIDGE M’ASS, however, overcomes that tendency by promising that the left-brain demand will be small: just a few words or lines. Might as well pause and read one; there are always more, and it will take just a moment. Icon, yes, but one that invites further and deeper readings, one dip at a time, rather than seal it off, as most broadside designs do, as a completed experience.
Though reading might proceed without plan and by impulse, Grenier did have a rough system for the placement of the poems. The title could have been shuffled into the mix, another sarcastic little two-word poem. But since it is separated off by extra black space in the lower right along with a few unmistakably paratextual boxes (dedication, author’s name, press name, copyright), it seems instead to have that special status. It’s a rude good-bye to New England and to the academy — both of them, in his subjective geography, centered in Cambridge — as he moved permanently to a nonacademic life in Northern California. Expanding outward from there, he selected some poems from Sentences, but mostly other poems from his notebooks of around that time. (He has called CAMBRIDGE M’ASS an “outtake” from Sentences. He typed them up on cards in the same Selectric font he’d used for Sentences, and he pasted them on the largest sheet that Hejinian could arrange to have printed offset in San Francisco. Grenier recalls that he was thinking of it as a rough and subjective map of the Boston area, centered on Cambridge, spreading out in the topography of memory, a “bird’s-eye-view” rather than, necessarily, cartographic accuracy. The black of the right margin would be the Atlantic Ocean, and the middle of the black edge at the top Ipswich Bay, Cape Ann the upper right and Connecticut the lower left — a map of mental relations. He also says he may have been thinking of Charles Olson’s references to Samuel Champlain’s 1607 map of Gloucester Harbor.
So there is a Louis Zukofsky reference toward the lower left corner, presumably toward Zukofsky’s New York, “L.Z. // ‘history their figment of miracle’”; near the Cambridge area in the middle, “who walked home from downtown Boston you and I”; near the upper right Cape Ann area, “sound receding steady toward shore dome tower // same three back again flying their shadows”; and in the extreme upper left (in a sort of New-Yorker’s-view-of-North-America foreshortening), “WINNIPEG / an hour’s variance.” Since the poems are arranged along the vectors and arcs of Grenier’s own memory, however, the places where he had lived or spent a lot of time will bulk larger than other areas where he did not, so any attempt to plot meaning onto conventionally scaled cartography will be pointless. Only experienced relations matter.
The spatial organization of CAMBRIDGE M’ASS reflects a sense of space Grenier says he found in New England. He has discussed how he found the sense of space there different from the sense of space he grew up with in Minneapolis. Two-dimensional Midwestern space, generally uninterrupted by hills and stretching across broad plains between its rivers, is generally laid out in grids, as is much of Minneapolis, including the neighborhood of Grenier’s childhood. In grid space, the relation between two addresses is easily calculable as an abstract and rational mathematical function. New England, however, was not laid out in arbitrary grids, but according to the contours of the land. Roads did not necessarily follow straight lines, meet at right angles, or respect the compass directions. The sense of space would spread out irregularly from a focal point. Routes would ray out from roundabouts along nonperpendicular vectors, and a journey might twist and shift from one roundabout focal point to another, vector leading to vector, from town to town toward a destination. Unlike a Midwestern grid, where distance is always easily calculable (so far west and so far north, say, along a grid of urban rectilinear blocks or rural mile-apart roads), New England distances and directions are more felt than calculated, more a matter of lived aesthetic awareness tied to the topographic contingencies of this specific place than a matter of abstract and generalized mathematical reasoning. To go from, for example, Cambridge to Gloucester, therefore, is to move along a series of twists and shifting vectors rather than smooth arcs and straight longitudinal lines. The layout of CAMBRIDGE M’ASS was to reflect that sense of space, where irregular contingencies have not been bulldozed away.
The boxed version of Sentences has the potential — for a reader willing to use it with intimacy and familiarity rather than with awed respect — to break standard sequentiality, to leave each poem standing in relation to the whole rather than to a rhetorical sequence or cluster arranged by an “external hand.” But as for CAMBRIDGE M’ASS, there is no way to read it in rhetorical sequence. Any ordering will be by the reader’s own arbitrary decision or impulse. Each autonomous poem always stands in relation to the whole work because the whole work stands within the reader-viewer’s field of vision — never hidden on other pages or deeper in the stack.
According to Grenier, copies were sold or given to friends, and as for the rest, some were rolled into shipping tubes, and some lay on the floor in stacks for years in the little room where Hejinian kept her hand press and her back stock. There was little interest in the work, and sales were negligible. Eventually, because she needed the room, she threw the remainder away.
1. Robert Grenier, CAMBRIDGE M’ASS (Berkeley, CA: Tuumba Press, 1979), broadside.
2. Deep thanks are due to Robert Grenier for sharing with me his memories of how this broadside was composed and published, also to James Maynard of the Poetry Collection in the Special Collections Library of the University at Buffalo for his invaluable assistance and expertise.
3. Robert Grenier, Attention: Seven Narratives, A Curriculum of the Soul,28 (Canton, NY: Institute for Further Studies, 1985), 12.
4. Tim Shaner, Jonathan Skinner, and Isabelle Pelissier, Farming the Words: Talking with Robert Grenier (Bowdoinham, ME: Field Books, 2009), 39.
6. Robert Grenier, Series: Poems 1967–1971 (San Francisco: This, 1978), np; Grenier, A Day at the Beach (New York: Roof, 1984), np.
7. “Grenier in Conversation with Charles Bernstein,” Program 2, Close Listening, PennSound, University of Pennsylvania, 20 Oct. 2006, mp3.
8. Ron Silliman, Silliman’s Blog, Jan. 24, 2003.
9. Grenier, Sentences (Cambridge, MA: Whale Cloth, 1978), np.
10. “Grenier in Conversation.”
11. Grenier, Attention, 13–14.
12. “Interview and Discussion on 1964–1970s with Grenier, Al Filreis, Charles Bernstein, and Michael Waltuch in New York City, on March 19, 2010,” interview part 2, PennSound, University of Pennsylvania, mp3.
13. Silliman, Silliman’s Blog, March 12, 2003.
14. Barrett Watten, review of Sentences by Robert Grenier, L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E 1.5 (Oct. 1978): np.
15. Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” in Illuminations, ed. Hannah Arendt, trans. Harry Zohn (New York: Schocken, 1969), 243.
16. Silliman, Silliman’s Blog, March 12, 2003.
17. Shaner, Skinner, and Pelissier, Farming the Words, 23.
18. Geof Huth, “SCHENECTADY, M’ASS,” dbqp: visualizing poetics (blog), Feb. 9, 2010.
19. Lyn Hejinian, “The Rejection of Closure,” in The Language of Inquiry (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2000), 43–44.
20. Michael Gottlieb, review of CAMBRIDGE M’ASS, by Robert Grenier, L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E 3.11, January 1980: np.
21. On how broadsides tend to turn texts into icons, see James D. Sullivan, “Posters, Poems, Icons: The Gallery Upstairs: Buffalo, NY 1968,” Mimeo Mimeo 5 (Fall 2011): 20–21.
22. “Interview and Discussion on 1964–1970s.”
23. Grenier, email message to author, August 6, 2010.
24. Nonetheless, Grenier provided a list of places he had lived in New England that he considers relevant to the organization of CAMBRIDGE M’ASS. Along with each address is the length of time he lived there — perhaps a suggestion of the magnitude of each place in memory and, thus, the relative area it governs on the poster. Here is the list:
Weld Hall, Harvard Yard 9 months
Fall 1959–Spring 1960
… Ellery Street (rooming house) 6 months
c. Nov. 1960–April 1961
57 West Cedar Street 2 months
Boston, MA (cellar on Beacon Hill)
… Putnam Avenue; 598, & later 429 Franklin St. 28 months
c. Nov. 1962–June 1965 (minus 5 summer months in Intervale, NH)
6 Duley Street 12 months
Gloucester (Lanesville), MA
Sept. 1970–August 1971
21A Washington Avenue 25 months
June 1976–July 1978
+ of course visits to various other spots around & about (e.g. 2 apts of my wife’s parents on Crafts Street in Newtonville, MA). (Grenier, email message to author, August 7, 2010.)
Also relevant is an interview in which Grenier discusses where he lived and what those places meant to him during his college years and early twenties in New England. “Interview and Discussion of 1959–1964 with Grenier, Al Filreis, Ron Silliman, and Bob Perelman at the Kelly Writers House, on October 27, 2009,” PennSound, University of Pennsylvania, mp3.
26. And still more radical are Grenier’s drawing poems, written in four colors and published on cards. The cards are photoreproductions of the notebook pages in which he writes them, including on the flat card, the image of the notebook’s page gutter. The lines of the letters and words overlap one another, and the orthography is highly unconventional, so the reading process involves figuring out what the letters are, as well as how those letters arrange into words and the words into an overall text. These minimalist poems bring the reader back to that long-ago moment when reading was a new skill and the process of mentally assembling and interpreting lines and loops of ink was an intentional process, not the second nature it’s become. So the reader becomes conscious not only of the mental work of sequencing, but also of the basic literacy work of decipherment. Some examples of this series include the box of cards What I Believe transpiration/transpiring Minnesota (Oakland, CA: O Books, 1991) and the online set Penn Scans, Whale Cloth Press, 2009. See also his comment on that series, “Penn Scans Note,” Whale Cloth Press, January 3, 2010.