— Three Desks —
Myung Mi Kim said, “Let’s make lists of all of our discursive writing and look at those lists.” I began a list soon lost under piles. In the intervening years the bit of edification, the muzzle, gag and tethers of training that determined much of what fell to that list have remained of interest while the sign of the “discursive” under which the list accreted has become increasingly perplexing.
There are daily occasions that provoke response or invitations that require address. Vigilant against the learned behavior of automatic response yet immersed also in a porous need-world in which adrenaline calls the mother, whether or not she has children, before or after, to tend to the call.
The call is not the song. The Latin obaudire, hearing from below — obeying.
— George Albon
Here enter the imaginal and actual laws that authorize kinds of public discourse by kinds of public bodies. The bit and muzzle and their company surface at the moment of the call, as if address requires some kind of redress too: obedience. The writing that escapes seems to be poetry.
Years ago, unable to confine myself to the dissertation writing at the computer on my desk, I put a table to my right and another behind me. The one to the side was a repository for writing related to the topics of the dissertation but occurring in an idiolect different from that of the academy. What I recognized as poetry, sometimes related to the dissertation topics and sometimes not, fell to the third table behind me.
Starting before the occupation of the dissertation chamber and continuing long after that triangulation, an attempt to repeatedly take resistance and desire, to write not only about them, not issue only from them, and also not ignore them.
I am interested in what prompts and makes possible this process of entering what one is estranged from — and in what disables the foray.
— Toni Morrison*
Perhaps for some an academic discourse is native, without ambivalence, or easy to learn. For me it was none of those.
Help arrived as the learning and re-learning, the consecutive and simultaneous ordering and disassembling of one posture after another — perhaps a brain patterning via the body? — of the t’ai chi form:
Question 4: To withdraw is then to release, to release is to withdraw…but what is “in discontinuity there is still continuity”?
Answer: Discontinuity is the physical form and continuity is the i (mind). It is like a broken lotus root with the fibers still connected. In Chinese calligraphy the stroke may be broken, but the mind is still connected.
— T’ai Chi Classics
T’ai chi arrived as a kind of third apprehension: not poetry, not academic discourse — but linking and partaking of some of both of these, and more. An embodied instruction in sequence and phrase that is and is not sequential. No surprise when you think of the Greek for discourse invoking the body in the act of twice bringing or throwing the discus, thus as a measure, like foot size, diskoura δισκουρα of distance. Or if you listen to the many contradictory definitions for the word discourse in the OED, some excoriating, some invoking the body and the household. Or think of diosakis διοσακις, poet., adv., twice over.
That worked and later unworked — re-broken lotus root with the fibers still connected — writing that became the dissertation, later became a book — not of — but partaking of poetry. The hope to address the requirement and desire to learn a particular vocabulary, taxonomy and comportment of thinking and speaking with its rules of inclusion and exclusion and to simultaneously consider the valences of silence and other kinds of thinking and utterance — these efforts to practice forms of discontinuity in continuity continued beyond the three-desk scene. Training to become an academic or a car mechanic or a ten-year-old cotillion dancer requires practice in particular etiquette, ethics and manners. Usually training to become a specialist makes one a specialist in correct etiquette. Once in a while someone also becomes thoughtful and curious, or a bacchic dancer within or beyond the waltz.
WHAT IS IT YOU HAVE COME TO TELL ME?
Ultimately, the good reason of our refusal to censor or to “correct” is that we seek not to get rid of what embarrasses us or what does not seem true to our lights but to go beyond embarrassment — beyond shame or disgust or outrage — to imagine in an other light, to see in a larger sight what we had rather was dismissed from view.
— Robert Duncan
We might wish for a fugitive writing but all writing, including poetry, must contend in some way with the reign of the discursive — even if only to attempt to ignore or subvert its rule.
Yet maybe this institution and this inclination are but two converse responses to the same anxiety: anxiety as to just what discourse is when it is manifested materially, as a written or spoken object.
— Michel Foucault**
In the realm of our current academic or medical or legal discursives, in which “proceeding by reasoning or argument” is the prevailing use of the word, one who refuses or is unable to be trained to tolerate the rigors of correction, the bit of edification, is often viewed as deficient — or she is regaled as a “real” Poet, having “escaped” via a royal road called “inspiration.” This divide we inherit and in which we live takes me back to one of its origins in the Ion: “for not by art does the poet sing but by power divine … God takes away the minds of poets.” The current discursive trains for meaning minus exhilaration. Thinking minus music.
Poetry and music are both patterns of sound drawn on a background of time. … Whatever refinements and subtleties they may introduce, if they lose touch altogether with the simplicity of the dance, with the motions of the human body and the sounds natural to a man exerting himself, people will no longer feel them as music and poetry. They will respond to them, no doubt but not with the exhilaration that dancing brings.
— Basil Bunting
We could think of poetry and music as elements of a kind of thought that involves voices issuing from bodies in motion. A sequence of actions, something like a dance or embodied incantation. Each step across the page might propose a measure of distance. A foot equals a sound unit or sentence. Invitation to a choreography of relation — the proximity of bodies — in a room doing the t’ai chi form — a call, body to body, like seaweed waving to currents in the air, or following the space of the page before word, each posture a hexagram, a sequence taking letter shapes — a form of thought and address —
What is it you have come to tell me?
— Address —
In the difficulty, there is no other to address but address itself.
If I could begin this is where I would begin.
Investigating these gags and tethers that attempt to keep us from violating the conventions of discursive utterance. That is investigating what we think we know about what thinking looks and sounds like — and should — this is the labor of a reflexive and reflective discourse.
All research is crisis. What is sought is nothing other than the turn of seeking, of research, that occasions this crisis: the critical turn.
— Maurice Blanchot
The turning back to look — to have recourse — does not turn one into a salt pillar.
Looking at the curse as it has been inherited through the social and the family over generations, as in, “You made my grandfather eat his children in a stew [Pelops] and therefore I will now kill you in revenge” and on and on for generations of blood-letting. Discourse as a kind of revenge, inheritance, heritage of bloodletting, that occurs in some academic and other cultural conventions, under the sign of which, the slaughter of what came before, one kind of looking back, is recognizable as the work of correction and improvement called contribution to the present.
Is there a way to talk, read, write within the social fabric, canon, family without continuing blood feud? — Is there a course that doesn’t lead, as it did for the Erinyes, Medea, Antigone, etc., to the punishment and shelter of the law of the polis? The banishment of the speech of the Furies to the hearth safely imprisoned inside the house?
The crisis of “the critical turn” is always present and always collapsing response, call, poetry, criticism, event, recollection. Always looking back at that second of a death, an origin, an invitation.
Marcel said they were incapable of establishing priorities. In fact their priorities were simply different priorities: value was assigned to all events equally but serially; what was going on at the moment — Aziz’s [murder] trial, a stray chicken — had top billing. Neither event would have a lasting hold on them. Special fondness was attached to those incidents and persons with the greatest dramatic possibilities — that is, with a continuing, endlessly repeatable and improvable life in the imagination: memory of a kind.
— Isabel Fonseca
In place of subordination, imagination. Like incantation — not without cause and effect as one can repeat one thing and something else may occur as a result. One could engage a telling memory of the remembered unfolding present that prioritizes that of “greatest dramatic possibility” and enacts the critical turn as ratiocination of a kind. Lyric might be of high priority in a response to the continual crisis of seeking.
Lyric has no sound but recalls sound. … The way a promise is an action made in speech, not in the sense of something scriptable or repeatable, but something that “happens,” that “occurs” as an event and can continually be called upon … in the unfolding present.
— Susan Stewart
At that second of the sound of the call, writing poetry is a promise that involves the desolation of the impossible charge. The enactment of a coherent public face that the discursive seems to demand puts me in a different state of desolation.
I am no doubt not the only one who writes in order to have no face.
— Michel Foucault
In some poetry the writer dwells on the desolation wire of the impossibility of writing within/while writing. Passing from premises to conclusions in the discursive mode we are taught to act, to masquerade as if writing is possible — without obstacle, as if we are not our own obstacle — as if the assignment to convey meaning, argument, language as tool in service of that, can be met.
Is the desolation wire the phatic place where the song eclipses, overshadows, devours, extends beyond the call? Phatic as in phanein φανεροs to show, to appear visible — even if in disguise. Does, can, a wounded and double-faced, doubt-filled, unfaithful to orders, faceless, full frontal critical writing exist?
If it could, would we be able then to burn the need for the distinction between the discursive and other writing?
What is always at work in discourse — as in everything else — is desire and power. … This is why discourse, at least since the rout of the Sophists by Plato, always unfolds in the service of the “will to truth.” Discourse wishes “to speak the truth.” but in order to do this, it must mask from itself its service to desire and power, must indeed mask from itself the fact that it is itself a manifestation of the operations of these two forces.
— Hayden White
Whose “truth” does which discourse wish us to speak, to serve up, to write?
— Third Apprehension —
All reasoning is carried on discursively; that is discurrendo, — by running about to the right and the left, laying the separate notices together, and thence mediately deriving some third apprehension.
Plucking from the definitions which themselves are laden with so much contradiction: invoking the inherent of the incoherent.
A subject of ‘discourse’ or reasoning (as distinguished from a subject of perception)
Perception as a kind of reason?
To lift the ancestral curse from this House of Atreus and turn it on itself.
Here the reflective recursive appears as the chorus that provides “another side to … conception,” even another kind of conception.
And, of course, s/he might begin with the writing. S/he might try to put the whole dialogue in new writing, the field of another kind of voice than those we have heard before. A help-ful, in-forming voice, a voice eager to reach and accept the other’s voice. Already in chorus, or eager to reach for chorus. It might get started like that. Any day, it could begin like that. Any day it could begin.
— Nathaniel Tarn
The intolerable restrictions of the drama could be loosened, however, if a means could be found by which what was general and poetic, comment, not action, could be freed without interrupting the movement of the whole. It is this that the choruses supply; the old men or women who take no active part in the drama, the undifferentiated voices who sing like birds in the pauses of the wind; who can comment, or sum up, or allow the poet to speak himself or supply, by contrast, another side to his conception.
— Virginia Woolf
As legend has it the first actor, the “hypocrit,” was Thespis, the first to appear on stage as a “character” of a written play instead of as “himself,” as a writer. He was also the first to exchange words with the leader of the chorus. The υποκριτηs, the hypocrit could be enlisted to appear on our current discursive stage as the figure who addresses and provokes “the undifferentiated voices who sing like birds in the pauses of the wind; who can comment, or sum up, or allow the poet to speak himself or supply, by contrast, another side to his conception.” Hypocrit from Hypokrisia Υποκρισια — of stringed instruments, answer in sound, i.e. sound in harmony with, to play an accompaniment. This hypocrit, being (at least) two-faced, could begin to “in-form” as Tarn suggests, begin to reach for a chorus that has already begun, to seduce and aggravate that chorus into more comment, summary, and more sides to conception.
The hypocrit talks with the chorus who talks to the audience. They all need each other to stay with/in the play. When the reader talks with the writer, is the reader the hypocrit or the chorus or the audience? The performance by all involves answering, harmonizing, assessing, contradicting: in short, interpretation — critical turns, a turning into, and turning from and toward heard and written passages.
One must be able to pass easily into those ecstasies, those wild and apparently irrelevant utterances, those sometimes obvious and commonplace statements, to decide their relevance or irrelevance, and give them their relation to the play as a whole.
We must be able to ‘pass easily’; but that of course is exactly what we cannot do. … But we can guess that Sophocles used them not to express something outside the action of the play, but to sing the praises of some virtue, or the beauties of some place mentioned in it.
— Virginia Woolf
It might not be possible or desirable to resuscitate, reconstitute, or intervene in the orders of the discursive under whose reign we live, but it could be possible instead to enlist it, turn it into, turn to it as a recursive chorus that doesn’t express something “outside the action of the play” (or the poem, or thinking) but reflects on and joins in singing “the praises of some virtue, or the beauties of some place mentioned in it” and examines its ethics and aesthetics, in order “to decide their relevance or irrelevance, and give them their relation to the play.” And we could ask the hypocrit to digress from the narrative, as the aria singer does, to invite the pets, the gospel mass choir, the recitative, the dolphins and circadae who comment on us and make a place (chorus also invoking an enclosed place, χορτος, a feeding place, a farmyard in which cattle were kept) between speech, song, premise, conclusion, thought, and law.
This recursive chorus would not be performing a meta-function of poetry, as poetry is always in “the play as a whole.” A whole? Where is the inside or outside of the play? Why do we even need to call this writing that enlists the wounded, double-faced, doubt-filled and faceless, something other than poetry? I think that is because we cannot ignore or pretend that we do not still live under the Pythagorean. And in the territory of address of the upper class, male only citizens, playwrights, actors and members of the chorus.
DUALISM: Under the good the Pythagoreans ranged light, unity, understanding, rest, the straight, male, right, definite, even, and square; and under evil as contraries, darkness, plurality, opinion, movement, the curved, female, left, indefinite, odd, irregular.
Promethean aspiration: To be a woman and a Pythagorean feminine. I go in disguise. Signification, Soul under stress, thread of connection broken, visionary energy lost.
— Susan Howe
The recursive might let us don the disguise of “Promethean aspiration: To be a woman and a Pythagorean” — to be a poet hypocrit, and keep “the thread of connection” — “broken lotus root with the fibers still connected” — as inside the wheel of the critical turn we keep researching the curse and walking the desolation high wire.
4. To come back or return (into, in or to) one’s thoughts, mind or memory.
Recurer (obs. rare)
One who helps or aids
Throughout his annual and recurring race he never stops but always changes place
recurring utterance, a form of aphasia marked by the repetition of certain words or phrases
1597 The muscles which are serviceable to the speech or voice, as are the recurrentes, or retrograding muscles.
Of an eagle: Having the back towards the spectator
who sing like birds in the pauses of the wind
with their back to the spectator as a form of address
I am no doubt not the only one who writes in order to have no face. Do not ask who I am and do not ask me to remain the same: leave it to our bureaucrats and our police to see that our papers are in order. At least spare us their morality when we write.
— Michel Foucault
Dream in which my charge is to write an essay about silence. And so I attempt.
“To speak is to do something.”
Or to not speak is to take care. Later, to “speak up” is to “tend”
Want, Guilt, Need, Care — the four gray hags
— Christa Wolf
To care is the work of the chorus not to express “something outside the action of the play” but to arrest the dialogue without stopping the action in order to reflect or reflect on actions. The noise of the recurrentes or retrograding muscles in a dance, gestures of utterance issuing from no single character — so, speechless in full speech, masked — on behalf of, to care for, the players in the play, the audience as character in the play — the child at play is in the play
Heart affluence in discursive talk from household fountains never dry
— Thomas Hardy, definition of discourse, OED
On the waterways the night house becomes a neutrality, not a contested space of subordinates. It apprehends a different relation to the animate objects in its hold — silently M and I make lists while the children sleep rocking in their bed boats.
The domestic stage, farmyard, feeding place — open air — public:
Behind the closed door a child moved furniture
Written In Furniture
A message arranged
But the recipients unaware of the legibility of this medium
What is it you have come to tell me?
When the angel of death passed over the houses of the Israelites marking doors — dispensing the pharaoh’s rule [as discursives of moral good and evil, just, unjust] to some, and sent (and saved) others under the sign of the bloody X that became wandering in the desert [running hither and tither: passing irregularly from one locality to another], exile, on others — my forehead — the forehead of my house, received an X. Sent to the lions, the snakes by the river who secretly romp together disrupting [passing from premises to conclusions; by ‘discourse’ of reason; ‘ratiocinative’] the believed order of the nature of animal behavior, I departed [running about to the right and the left, laying the separate notices together]
Here I dwell
Gather round children of circumstance
while I pass the plate
Let chance, occasion, contingency, condition, happenstance, the circling stars, the odds, hazard,
mistake, incident, be our debtors
take us hostage
so we have no choice but to pack up and climb out the window
That is to run away, to write, to run back into the burning house
Glory to the combination lock
with its lost numbers
And the way we look up at story time
thinking the face of the teacher is the book
and our circle the story clock
Come diverge perplex tell ask spoken for speak with quotation, juxtaposition, diagnosis as proposition — braid doom dwellers, wanderers and the able unable — which dys is it keeping us doubters, dancers, the aimfully inarticulate, aphasic, estranged, chronically embarrassed, those who cannot leave the all-you-can-eat smorgasbord, weepers, the exhilarated, army of archers — Turn, bend, twist, spin, brush-the-knee-and-strike
From COMING EVENTS (Collected Writings), Nightboat Books, Callicoon, New York, 2013.
Thanks to Myung Mi Kim for years of conversation. Thanks also to Nathaniel Tarn, whose writings about the choral contributed to my thinking.
And thanks to all of those in whose work I first encountered the possibility of something that might be called the recursive: through letter writing (before computers); in the 1987 issue of ACTS journal called “Analytic Lyric”; in the work of Norma Cole; Benjamin Hollander; in Susan Howe’s My Emily Dickinson; Luce Irigaray; Hélène Cixous; Norman O. Brown’s Love’s Body; Barbara Guest’s Rocks on a Platter, Forces of Imagination, Dürer in the Window, and more recently in the work of Eleni Stecopoulos, Christa Wolf, and Gustaf Sobin, and Impasse of the Angels by Stefania Pandolfo. I’m sure there are many more examples unknown to me or forgotten.
Many thanks to George Albon for his invaluable comments on “Outer Event.”
Thanks to Martin Inn, t’ai chi teacher, acupuncturist, friend, for comment on this writing and many years of wisdom, healing, and friendship.
Thanks beyond possible thanks to Steve Dickison for his repeated readings and indispensible responses to this piece.
I am interested in what prompts and makes possible this process of entering what one is estranged from — and in what disables the foray, for purposes of fiction, into corners of the consciousness held off and away from the reach of the writer’s imagination. My work requires me to think about how free I can be as an African-American woman writer in my genderized, sexualized, wholly racialized world. To think about (and wrestle with) the full implications of my situation leads me to consider what happens when other writers work in a highly and historically racialized society. For them, as for me, imagining is not merely looking or looking at; nor is it taking oneself intact into the other. It is, for the purposes of the work, becoming.
Inclination speaks out: ‘I don’t want to have to enter this risky world of discourse, I want nothing to do with it insofar as it is decisive and final. … All I want is to allow myself to be borne along, within it, and by it, a happy wreck’. Institutions reply: ‘But you have nothing to fear from launching out; we’re here to show you discourse is within the established order of things .… and if it should happen to have a certain power, then it is we, and we alone, who give it that power.’ … In a society such as our own we all know the rules of exclusion. We all know what is prohibited. We know perfectly well that we are not free to say just anything, that we cannot simply speak of anything, when we like or where we like; not just anyone, finally, may speak of just anything.