'The shuttle of discourse': Chris Tysh on Marjorie Welish's 'Begetting Textile' poems

...and a look at works by Jon Cotner & Andy Fitch, Gustaf Sobin, and María Sabina

In weaving—from basic hand weaving to mechanized looms—the direction is back and forth, left to right and right to left and again. Other actions take place between these movements: a stick lifts one set of threads up and down to create a shed through which the shuttle moves across. Heddles—through which various warp fibers are threaded in order to create patterns—lift and fall in various sequences.

In reading and writing poetry of course we work with the line—but our movement is from left to right or right to left or up to down, depending on the language we are working in. Our languages seem to consistently direct us to one place only as “the beginning.”

There are some poets who come to mind, though, when I think about the poetics of weaving and the motion of “back and forth.”

I want to begin my discussion of weaving and poetry with Marjorie Welish’s “Begetting Textile” sequence and Chris Tysh’s luminous essay on the work. Tysh describes these poems as “traversals ‘in verse.’” Reading “in verse” as “inverse” is no accident. She writes:

Like a weaving shuttle, discourse (discursus: the act of running to and fro) plies and turns itself over from one edge to the other. It runs; it writes. What passes in this ferrying? What verities? What promises? What returns with each shuttle? Will I recognize it when it sails by again?

Tysh explains that Welish’s works are the performance of these questions. And while she agrees that Welish’s postmodern project is to engage the language of theory implied in its own making, Tysh proposes that Welish’s sequence does not stop there. By suggesting that the “Begetting Textile” works are performative, Tysh posits that “the shuttle of discourse carries with it the risk of unraveling, of losing its place in the text(ile), and disrupting the very meaning it creates: ‘[..] how things might have been different. A different thing.’”

In the very last sentence of her essay Tysh magically asserts that the “lyric’s postmortem can only unveil” a “space where a poem turns from song to disenchantment and back again.”

Looking through Walter B. Denny’s How to Read Islamic Carpets last week, I had a vague memory of seeing Marjorie Welish give a talk on text/image at a conference at the CUNY Graduate Center some years ago. On my own, I had been studying and reading her work and poetics when I was first trying to learn what “experimental” literature could be. I was also thrilled to learn that she is many things: a poet, painter, critic, and educator.  At this conference I remembered that she spoke of the relationship between the borders of “oriental” rugs and patterning language in a poem.

With this memory, I went, last week, to search for this reference and I joyfully came across some of “Begetting Textile” published on the Electronic Poetry Center site. Indeed the poems’ forms signal a heavy motion across, an attention to two margins, and a concern with borders and edges, visually. The repetition of sounds and words and parts of words links the end of one line to the beginning of the next. The subject matter and sound stuff of every line seems to review what came before and preview what is to come.

Reading, I began to consider not just the weaving moment when the shuttle reverses its motion and goes the other way. I also noticed some interesting “weaving” work inside each line. Those repetitions might extend the weaving metaphor beyond the simple weave of back and forth, signaling all the complications that are possible within: interlocking, dovetailing, herringbone, woven pile resulting in velvet, double weft weaves, and, especially while looking at Welish’s poem, I thought of satins. According to Elena Phipps’ Looking at Textiles, a satin weave has a “surface of long floats, bound in a systematic way, but whose binding is not readily visible.” The long floating fibers, she goes on to explain, reflect the light. I wondered about the poetics of this. In “Textile 11” might I be reading elongated surfaces of language occasionally attached? A kind of satin weave? A surface that gives a gauzy reflection of the reader back to herself? Is this another kind of shuttling?

I wanted to read Welish’s Word Group where this sequence is collected, but the interlibrary loan will take a couple weeks to come through. So I listened to other poems recorded here and there at readings—and this was great. I became attuned to the pattern of shifts: words that seemed to indicate “end of the line” and the experience of hearing a weaver’s heddles raise, the pause of a new shed put in place, and the shuttle running across and through this silence before the next clank of a new shed. Listening, the movement of back and forth felt more pronounced than in the poem on the page. I heard all the connecting words so clearly: “as” and “because” and “as if.” I felt I was experiencing thinking/lyric absolutely.

Her “Textile 13” which features “Movement was used” and “Walking along a walk,” is a nice segue into an unexpected, for me, association between weaving and poetry: the work of Jon Cotner and Andy Fitch. This week I taught their book Ten Walks/ Two Talks and as a class, we decided that we could not talk about this work without giving the poetics of it something of a “test run.” So I sent pairs of students out into the heat of afternoon to do a five minute “loop” to the cafeteria and back. The loop: already a textile set-up. They took their phones/recorders out with them, and they came back bewildered by what had just transpired. We will report on our findings next week when pairs bring in the transcript—the poem?—of their walking/talking. 

Of course Cotner and Fitch’s project relies completely on the discursive loop of relation, of “picking up threads” of conversation and giving back, and of performance. The work can’t continue without the passing of words, quite literally and physically, over and through a center made of two directions, two voices, two bodies walking in one direction.

Further thoughts on weaving and poems: I am also thinking of Gustaf Sobin’s heavily enjambed lines and stanzas. In fact, I think his work teaches us that there is something in enjambment itself that may nod to weaving’s action, pushing us to work through reading as a “shuttling” motion. Sobin’s poems especially make me think of the moment of “reset” in weaving—a new shed for the shuttle being formed seems very much like enjambing stanzas. For example, his poem “In Way of Introduction” begins:

poems are about.    yours, though it

would seem, are


bout the process of their own

depletion: about, one might assume, the sheer a-


boutlessness of being.    oh nexus

of nobody’s, nulla in the knotted

musculature of its


very mirrors […]


And I can’t help but read “about” and “nexus” and “knotted” and “mirror” as perhaps textile and weaving references or as having those roots, at the least. (Or after nearly three months of textile poetics commentaries, I am seeing textile everywhere.)

Finally, I am thinking of a poem I often teach: María Sabina’s “The Folkways Chant” published in the University of California’s Selections of her work, and written down by V. P. and R. Gordon Wasson in 1956. Here are its first three lines—lines that establish a pattern that persists throughout seven pages:

I am a woman who shouts, says
I am a woman who whistles, says
I am a woman who thunders, says 

Here the “says” shuttles us across to the other side. Other, continually met and moved away from, moved toward. The discourse of the poem and its repetition guards against the unraveling, against excess that would be too much, and at the same time reminds us that this binding, this form, is quite constructed. Language here needs this “extra-language”; The poem, in order to work, needs the grammar difference between the basic, and supposed solidity of “I am” and the third person slightly outside the work indicated by “says.”

And so this work does seem to signal a textile poetics—it is, to me, another enactment of Chris Tysh’s idea of “the shuttle of discourse”: “space where a poem turns from song to disenchantment and back again.”