Jennifer K. Dick's 'Lilith: A Novel in Fragments'
Lilith: A Novel in Fragments
Lilith: A Novel in Fragments
Artifact, from the Latin arte, “by or using art,” + factum, “something made.” But an “artefact,” in French, is also something accidental, a residual effect created by human beings that distorts observation of a natural phenomenon, like footsteps distorting a seismic measurement. Jennifer K. Dick’s Lilith revolves in part around this ambiguous status between the accidental and the deliberately formed: the reader encounters a series of enigmatic textual objects that seem alternately laden with meaning. Yet there is a distinct pleasure in encountering words not merely as potential signifiers but as objects in their own right. For objects in general bear the same ambiguous relationship to the symbolic and to the human will; they may appear arbitrary or meaningful depending on their deployment, their context, or the subject’s psychological state. In Lilith, even the name of the novel’s protagonist exhibits the book’s fragmentary character: she appears only as Lili throughout the volume. While labeled a “novel in fragments,” there can be no restitution of a total narrative. Rather than a novel, Lilith resembles an archive, museum, or collection of curiosa, dusty and sometimes broken: in these spaces, there is a perpetual suggestion of narrative(s) as potentialities awaiting reconstruction.
Fragments, of course, abound here in every imaginable form, particularly in open-ended nonsentences: “To eat is to fowl as neon vernacular is to / Does it have the taste of cardboard if you / (when you) / Take the vowels out of it”; “Hands of lavender on the / What was stepping back to accomplish / A letter feather helix” (71; the triple apposition is a recurrent device throughout the book). Unusual or unexpected enjambments abound. The directionality of reading is not always evident, leading to multiple or crisscrossing readings that fragment the poems into their component parts:
She cannot wake herself fully
from this dreamed blanket
he says, begs
images scatter like fleas
an hour more, convinced
over the woolen surface
she might be saying
a message just for him
nothing special-recognition of the hours
This poem may be read in two distinct columns and as two texts or continuously as a single text: “She cannot go on” or “She cannot wake herself fully” This kind of ingenious typography is legion in Lilith: crossed-out words, upside down text, diagonally printed text, visual poems, constellated texts, etc.
Readers of Jacket2 will likely be reminded, and not accidentally, of various explorations in linguistic fragmentation in a distinctly feminist lineage: Harryette Mullen’s Trimmings and S*PeRM**K*T similarly foreground artifacts (clothes or other quotidian items of contemporary life); Leslie Scalapino or Ann Lauterbach break apart sentences in ways akin to Lilith. But one might also mention French ascendants such as André Du Bouchet, who explored the visual space of the page and the power of isolated words or clusters of words, or Pierre Reverdy, whose fragmented novel Le Voleur de Talan (The Thief of Talan) defies linear narrative.
Who is Lilith, or Lili, as the text itself refers to her? One might rely on midrashic or other folkloric (principally Jewish) sources to reconstruct some notion of who Lilith might be: she has appeared since antiquity as a demon responsible for the death of children and for the seduction of men. In one well-known iteration of this figure, Lilith was “the first Eve” who disputed her subservience to Adam before departing to become a perpetual figure of fearsome feminine sexuality.
But in Dick’s book, Lilith does not seem demonic; she is most of all inscrutable, while her name, by association with the lily, suggests purity. But one could extend the name’s suggestions. Dick is heavily influenced by the French tradition (she has lived in France for many years and teaches in Mulhouse), and I can’t help but see the word lit, (he/she) reads, as when Dick writes: “(She is in the) / These, / (she is) / words,” suggesting an identity between Lili and the words interpreted and seen by the reader (111); elsewhere, one might find associations between Lili and the reader herself instead (see for instance Lili’s association with mirrors, 83). Similarly, by way of the French, Lili’s name suggests the noun lit — bed (I’ll explain the latter association later).
Other mythological and biblical figures appear by allusion, closely associated with Lili: Eve, of course, but also Lot’s wife, transformed into a pillar of salt after looking back at the condemned cities of Sodom and Gomorrah (Lot’s wife, along with the cities, are associated with homosexuality); and Echo, who fell in love with Narcissus and was transformed into the repetitive acoustic phenomenon in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. A male figure designated only as he resonates likewise with associations to Adam and Narcissus.
It is tempting to read in Lili’s subjection to various “enclosures” (the title of many of the book’s sections) a feminist motif of an imprisoned female subject, deprived of agency. Alternatively, these enclosures might be those of precious reliquaries, housing fragments of the past. Symbols in Lilith often resist easy ideological categorization, as negative or positive in relation to Lili or to women in general, for instance. Because of the tendency of textual motifs to recombine and signify in new ways in new contexts within this book, it resists a univocal reading in terms of political commitment (which, if one is to believe Adorno’s essay “Commitment,” might be the only way — or at least the best way — to construct an authentic political commitment in literature). Similarly, pronouns — he, she, I, you, and they — do not seem to designate determinate subject-positions within the book; they are always specular, reflective both of reader and what/who is read, either within the I/you relation or designating third parties, in a kind of free circulation of identities gendered and otherwise. Pronouns, always reversible or refractive, apply to the reader (lit-lit) and the writer alike; they are freely available for readerly identification, as in a reflecting surface, itself empty of content but containing what passes before it: “a self (less) expression / of the self” (83), as one text aptly puts it while evoking the figure of the mirror.
In fact, the collection returns time and again not only to the mirror, but to optics in general: to the eye (and the I, which pronoun appears only occasionally as such), even to the “retina” (the title of one of the book’s sections). “she eyes / him, she gives him the eye, she hands her eyes over like a donation / or message” (27), reads one emblematic poem. The analogy between the retina and the page receiving its impressions springs to mind: “Her after-lapse of the planed surface. Pane. […] Remember or eyes of it” (170), writes Dick in another text. Why this concentration on all things optical? Evidently because of the book’s obsessive reflexivity, which leads it back to the page’s spatiality and the act of looking/reading (constitutive, in some sense, of Lili herself); reflexivity entails reflection, the gaze and its object, and, indeed, any dialectical reversal. In Lilith, self-reflection is pushed so far into the logic of language that every word appears to point back toward Lili herself, or toward the event of reflection itself. When Dick turns to taste and scent in the section “Redolence,” the poet has prepared the reader to find Lili again in these evanescent phenomena (this later foregrounding of these two senses represents a relatively unusual and refreshing turn, the visual and auditory tending to dominate the thematic spaces of poetry just as they do human cognition). Everything appears as an image (or smell, or taste) for the book, the page, or the writing, or else as one element of a series of metaphors one may recombine like the facets of a Rubik’s cube, or an equation in which every term is equivalent to every other: bed = book = enclosure = box = page = Lili. This is reflexivity pushed to its lawless limit: each term, each motif appears as potentially equivalent to all others, depending on the reader’s chains of association. To offer a few other examples like the one just cited: soap = jewelry = painting = clothing (see 102 for these associations); “parachute fig camera” (87; such appositional clusters are frequent throughout the book).
As for the word “bed” (lit-lit), in addition to the recurring mirror image, Lili seems perpetually in a state of semi-sleep, or on the verge of waking; the book’s third part begins: “Lili — says a voice — Wake!” (49). Elsewhere, a sudden evocation emerges, also featuring a bed: “As now, on the bed, a feather, pages” (19). The Mallarméan quality of this selection of objects, the feather-plume and its pages especially, will be evident to any reader of that poet, and, indeed, the formal operations of Lilith consistently recall Un coup de dés jamais n’abolira le hasard: Dick eschews anything approaching mimetic representation so that little to no anecdotal material ever emerges, and maximal use is made of the spatial dimensions of the page (upside down text, a visual poem or two). In addition to Mallarmé, Anne-Marie Albiach might be an important ancestor to Lilith.
The French poet James Sacré has often pointed out that words are themselves a species of object. Jennifer K. Dick uses words as such: one may encounter an object whose context does not provide it meaning or function, like a television in an empty lot, a fragment of some inscrutable enterprise, or, as in Hitchcock’s films, a key element in a mystery we do not yet master: “To undermine is / At the doorstep / A woodpile awaiting fire” (71), writes Dick, and the reader may wonder what that fire might undermine, who may ignite that fire and to what purpose; the sign is ominous and seems to portend something, but its underlying narrative never emerges. In that sense, although Lilith has no narrative per se, it constantly plays on our expectations of narrative, deploying new artifacts at every turn, each apparently imbued with purpose.
Any exploration of the fragmentary necessarily yields some degree of opacity: some fragments are bound to not “make sense” in conventional terms. There is space for the aleatory and the arbitrary in the play among fragments. As a result, one must encounter these words as one might encounter any object in the world, without the expectations we attach to meaning-making in a world of words: a collection of unusual artifacts. But Lilith is a sophisticated book, and it repays sustained and repeated readings. These artifacts, like old letters in a wooden box covered with dust, can yield compelling secrets indeed:
This illusion of scent
An odor familiar
1. Jennifer Dick, Lilith: A Novel in Fragments (Luxembourg: Corrupt Press, 2019), 131. Neon Vernacular is the title of a book by Yusef Komunyakaa.
2. For more on these midrashic sources, see for instance the overview presented by Jewish Virtual Library. Sefaria.org has many midrashic sources available in full.