Walking through speech to speaking

A review of Jill Magi’s ‘SPEECH’

Photo of Jill Magi by Jennifer Firestone.



Jill Magi

Nightboat Books 2019, 180 pages, $17.95 ISBN 978-1643620077

As someone interested in mapping the stop-and-start iterations of experimental American poetry, I cannot help but situate the self-interrogations and cultural/political analyses of Jill Magi’s SPEECH in relation to Robert Grenier’s infamous provocation “I HATE SPEECH.”[1] Though sometimes cited as a rallying call for Language writing, the declaration’s context (e.g., the Berkeley Free Speech Movement) and afterlife (Grenier would go on to compose, among other things, drawing poems), however much a “breach,” as Ron Silliman called it, with the voice-centered poetry of various movements (e.g., the Beats, New American, San Francisco Renaissance, etc.), would lead less to a praxis of Language writing than to a general rethinking of the materiality of the graphic and visual arts in general. It is this complicated attitude and relation to “speech” that Jill Magi resurrects, with a difference, in her new book of artwork, poetry, and prose. In the most global sense, SPEECH is an archive of an artistic practice that veers across categorical borders, an index of Magi’s interest in textiles, installations, photography, and writing. For, as she suggests in the text proper and in its afterword, speech is articulation per se, a showing or, better yet, putting forth. In that sense, Magi’s understanding of speech is complementary to Derrida’s demonstrations of writing as différance. Common and important to both Magi and Derrida is that neither speech nor writing is a concept. Rather, as Magi insists, speech (and Derridaen writing) is a practice of movement as inscription: “From my window I watched their movements as if they were stitching new embellishments into the city’s surface.”[2] Grenier, too, was watching “movements” from his office window in Berkeley, but his “I HATE SPEECH” was less directed against the cacophony of specific political, social, and cultural protests than Magi’s “as if,” the ground of post-Enlightenment aesthetics.[3] Magi’s recognition of her aestheticization of a culture different from her native one — that “as if” — is thus analogous to Grenier’s “I HATE SPEECH.” Up against the limits of speech, vocalized or represented in writing, both writers will turn to other modes of artistic expression — handicrafts, drawings — that, in general, trouble the boundaries of genre per se.

Although Magi is not explicit about the length of time it took her to write SPEECH, it feels like a series of daybooks composed over years. Moreover, there is no linear narrative (the reader is invited to enter at any place in the book), even though the book is generally framed by references to historical and current political, cultural, and social events in the United States while a great deal of the “middles,” as she calls them, ponder Magi’s relationship to her adopted “home” of Abu Dhabi. Threading throughout the book are Magi’s meditations on what it means to recognize oneself as an “impossible citizen” of both her native and adopted “homes.” This embodied impossibility extends to any and all of her art practices, for what is impossible and necessary is a practice of making that insures belongingness. But because each mode of making, each genre, if you will, is inadequate to the task, Magi deploys speech — but not speaking — as a common denominator for all the arts. The noun — speech — is the end of movement, the conclusion of speaking. Thus, the noun is to language what the frame is to photography, what the loom is to textiles: the condition for a thing’s being and its very limit. While Grenier inscribed his sense of nausea in relation to speech, that all speech “says the same thing,”[4] Magi marks speech as a false god, an idol, within Western democracies, and thus the other side of restricted speech under Middle Eastern monarchies: “SPEECH a lake of lack / of desert valves / of the haves and not — .” In other words, speech is only the possibility of communication, for one can speak without ever being heard: “SPEECH another country / cloaked in no citizenship / where the relentless SPEECH / of a blue sky shows me / how systematic ruin / continues to continue / to like to check to vote” (79). Demystifying speech as the guarantor of democratic sovereignty, Magi invokes writing, but writing too proves inadequate: “I wrote and wrote their loops / until my pages were covered with / efficient plastic eye scans / and I stopped penning this / about the north and south city everywhere.” Thus, she turns from “the spread of policy / of poetry sorry so polite // and I stopped writing this” (125). Per Derrida, Magi’s acknowledgement of the restricted economy of writing as inadequate recalls again Grenier’s declaration against speech: the ends of both modes of articulation cannot escape their common past in European social, cultural, and political values.[5]

Outflanked by inadequacies on three sides — restricted speech in Abu Dhabi, free speech in the United Sates, and the self-reflexive writing of an “I” — Magi opens up a fourth front: citationality. Quoting anonymous officialese (“This line for anyone / with an Iraqi passport” [128]) and ventriloquizing poetry (“somebody blew up / America” [17]), Magi walks “away / out from under autology” (59). This familiar strategy of disconnecting speech from speaking subjects has been one response to the organicism informing mid-twentieth-century American poetry. And since Magi is still dedicated to lyric affect and narrative coherence, parataxis becomes another form of self-disciplining, another way to resist the compulsion to narrate, the allure of linearity. Her favorite word for describing her walks is “vector,” diagonal movement, and thus embodied resistance to mere lineation, even as that word is also another instance of self-recognition, that she is a carrier, however asymptomatic, of American culture.

Still, as Magi shuttles back and forth between perception and her presence in Abu Dhabi on the one hand and the past and her life in Chicago and New York on the other, temporal and geographical borders dissolve in affect (“She who shuffles I / stirring my bag an inventory of what spills —” [135]) by the end of the book. Standing before “gold grids / tiles radiating only gold,” she can “barely claim this double joy,” her “heart in halves // so much so that [she] / only want[s] flatness — / please withhold your trick of depth” (126). The solace of optical illusions is only qualified, not rejected, since it opens up for Magi an unanswerable question: “What if flatness / is an ability to love?” (144). These lines can easily be misread, might easily seem to erase differences (e.g., “I don’t see color, just people”), but Magi means something else here: the solace of the orders of art is often posed against the unforgiving messiness of the world. But what if (and it is only a possibility) art can also instruct us how to live, if not love, in that messiness? Because “Nor news nor strife / could hold her love of flatness” as she is transported “through fourteen centuries / of stitches moving through / the silk of his [her love’s] fingers” (152). Magi gives up “obsessions with clear skin / with clear cause through into the corner store / of laughter under the thick evening / the men and their laughter unraveling / whole lengths of loss” (153). This ending of the book echoes, for me, strangely enough the end to Edward Hirsch’s long poem “Earthly Light” when the narrator, overwhelmed with the ceaseless brilliance of the seventeenth-century Dutch painters after a day in a museum, rushes “down the stairs // into a street already crowded with people.”[6]

However, unlike Hirsch’s decisive turn from perfectly executed artifice to the everyday life of ordinary citizens, Magi reserves for herself, in herself, a space for visual art, for her photography and drawing. Thus, four of the 180 pages of SPEECH are dedicated to sketches: a single photograph of a hand-drawn wooden chest sliced unevenly into a quadrant across verso and recto pages (80–81) and, on pages 112 and 113, four photographs of hand-drawn twigs. All eight photographs are titled by a sequence of numbers that resemble computer code (e.g., the photographs of the drawn twigs are titled/numbered “00020, 00021, 00022, 00023”). The lack of verbal language titles arrests any attempt to assign intrinsic “meaning” to the photographs; they thus signify the flatness of surface readings invoked throughout SPEECH. That doesn’t mean, however, that even apparent random photographs are completely unmotivated within an extrinsic context. To view the wooden chest and twigs in relation to one another is to evoke the old culture/nature dichotomy. That dichotomy is reproduced as not only the camera/hand divide (which raises the ghost of Plato’s forms: art as a copy of a copy) but also between each set of photographs and the texts that immediately precede them.

I’ve already cited Magi calling out “free speech” as an impotent bromide (the “free speech” of the poor, of women, of the queer, of African Americans, etc. is not equal to that of the rich, men, heterosexuals, of Whites, etc.) in Western democracies; the photograph of the chest whose bottom section is sliced off follows immediately. The photographs of the four hand-drawn twigs are preceded by a series of couplets juxtaposing the abbreviated history of Dr. Martin Luther King’s gradual shift from civil to human rights and a woman leaving one building (home) to enter another building (a gym) to work out on a treadmill. The incongruity between the wooden chest made from a tree whose only trace is twigs is marked in the sliced-off sections of the chest. In Chicago, for example, the economically impoverished South Side is literally cut off from the wealthy enclaves of the Gold Coast and Evanston by the downtown business area. Incongruity is perhaps more apparent in the intertwining narratives of a woman going to a workout session from one “secure” building to another and MLK’s inexorable journey to martyrdom. Here, the personal and political, self-care and self-risk, demonstrate the price that “some” citizens of democracies pay for exercising their right to “free speech.”

But this book is not called Free Speech. Its vision is both “smaller” and “larger” than the social or political ramifications of what it means to, as Magi puts it, “live with longing” (159). There are sections on Magi’s relationships with her family (nuclear and extended); perhaps more moving, there is, early in the book, Magi’s insistence on what it might mean to speak, to have made a speech, without putting forth as a woman must often do to become a woman. The slur “putting out” can serve here not only as a reference to sexual enticement and coercion (thus erasing choice by recalibrating sexual participation as a commodity in a system of exchange) but also to “showing,” to proving that one has done one’s duty by becoming pregnant. In a section titled “Insignia” Magi considers the environmental impact of having children: “she experiments with // two sets of numbers / counting up or down // to environmental end / sinking planet skin // back into / placenta skin” (48). The motif running through this section — “DIS-” — is a general sign of jettisoning, of Magi cutting off, of being cut off, from a certain inheritance: “DIS- // to go further / into the future with care // detached from progeny” (52). She is not unaware of the cost of this decision: “DIS- / inherit mothering // DIS- // inherit home” (53). Thus, in the spirit of Emily Dickinson, SPEECH is, in the end, an affirmation of privilege put to “good” ends sans the moral sanctimony. SPEECH is a record of searching, of crisscrossing, going around in circles, all the vectors, tangents, and arcs of one seeking belongingness without belonging.

1. Robert Grenier, “On Speech,” This 1 (1971).

2. Jill Magi, SPEECH (New York: Nightboat Books, 2019), 159.

3. Just before his infamous declaration in “On Speech,” Grenier writes that, to him, “all speeches say the same thing,” specifically, per Williams, the sonnet, which is simply a “reiteration of the past, dragged on in formal habit.” The limits of spoken American English, however varied across regional and cultural dialects, are analogous to the limits of the sonnet, however varied its articulations (e.g., Shakespearean, Petrarchan). Both are vectors of a European past.

4. Grenier, “On Speech.”

5. In this sense, then, the Magna Carta is the sonnet of political possibility.

6. Edward Hirsch, Earthly Measures (New York: Knopf, 1994), 89.