Sunday, September 28, 2008

Gary Lutz: Alone with the Sentence

I can't read Gary Lutz, author of the short-story collections I Looked Alive , Stories in the Worst Way , and, most recently, Partial List of People to Bleach as well, crucially but less often noted, The Writer's Digest Grammar Reference Book.

I very nearly can't read Gary Lutz, though I want to just about every day.

Every time I read Gary Lutz, the problem is, I can't stop the sentences I've read from sounding out, percussive and recurrent, days after in my head. I think a little like a Gary Lutz sentence. I write a little like a Gary Lutz sentence. Actually, that's not a bad fate: the tactics and strategies of a Lutz sentence are well worth dwelling within.

Life could better subsist as a Gary Lutz sentence, and on Wednesday night, in a talk at Columbia University called "The Sentence is a Lonely Place," Lutz let the standing-room only audience (people in the corridor, straining ears, themselves agape) in on how he reads and thinks a sentence by the letter.

Drawing on examples such as Christine Schutt's phrase "acutely felt, clearly flat," Lutz pointed out not just the obvious correspondences between the two monosyllables (and let's not forget one is a verb and one an adjective posing as a noun) but also the way that the first phrase "contains the alphabetic DNA" of the second. He tracked individual letters and combinations of letters through sentences and paragraphs from Diane Williams, Don DeLillo, Ben Marcus, Fiona Maazel, and Sam Lipsyte. Outlining his "poetics of the sentence" with a nod to Gordon Lish's ideas of "consecution" he talked about "the drama of the letters within the words."

In the hope that someone will publish Gary Lutz's talk, which is the most masterful and useful talk on craft and poetics I've had the pleasure of attending, I won't say too much more about it, except that a close look at the sentences Lutz has clocked up in his own works would be a great place to see how taut and locked a sentence could shut.

Instead, I want to swing this post to two places that I think are adjacent to both Lutz's work, his talk, and each other: the poetry of George Oppen and the Anglo-Saxon riddles. Bear with me, here. Look, Lutz-like, at the opening of Oppen's 1934 Discrete Series :

White. From the
Under arm of T

The red globe.

From under the "arm" or crossbar of the letter T in the word "white" we find the "e" of both "red" and "globe." "Thus / Hides the // Parts" as Oppen says in his next poem.

Or, later, the lines:

Between glasses--place, over which
aaaaaaaaaaaaaaitime passes--a false light.

As spectators for the "drama of the letters within the words" we can notice the way "l" and "a" run through this sentence, each getting ahead of its alternate: "la," "la," "a," "al," "l." What is within "glasses" is also in "place" and "place" is literally and letterally and latterly over "time passes" and thus passes over it - only to run into the "false light" which again contains the elements "between" the start and end consonants of "glasses."

A discussion of rhyme, off-rhyme, assonance, alliteration, cannot and will not suffice. What Lutz's reading of contemporary fiction offers to poetry - and this is a link he at least implied - is a letter by letter reading. The matter of the materiality of the text: not just the "live wood" Oppen calls his book, but the letters that are the "fiber."

Oppen's version of Objectivism (which has an ancestor, perhaps, in Rimbaud's poem "Voyelles"?) will be familiar to anyone who has read or, better, looked at the Anglo-Saxon riddles. I'm going to un-name them as riddles (that's a critical addition) and re-name them an Anglo-Saxon "Discrete Series." One point of connection is that contemporary critics, as Conte notes in his book Unending Design often try to name the supposed Object to which Oppen's poems are the cryptic description, just as Anglo-Saxon critics strive to name the word the Anglo-Saxon Discrete Series poems hide. Such approaches are not especially fruitful ways to engage with either series of poems. Consider this poem from the Exeter Book , typically referred to as Riddle 47 after the numbering established by Krapp and Dobbie:

Moððe word fræt -- me þæt þuhte
wrætlicu wyrd þa ic þæt gewundor gefrægn,
þæt se wyrm forswealg wera gied sumes,
þeof in þystro, þrymfæstne cwide
ond þæs strangan staþol. Stælgiest ne wæs
wihte þy gleawra þe he þam wordum swealg.

We don't need a translation of this to observe the letter-drama the poem has as its object, to go beyond noting the expected three metrical alliterations per line in order to follow the letters and their interactions. "Word" for instance transforms into "wyrd" by the change of one letter and them "wyrm" by the change of one letter, and then, with one letter changing and two transposed, we have the "þrym," of "þrymfæstne." Or, in the modern English, "word" is swallowed and replaced by "fate/what happens" which in turn is swallowed/replaced by "worm/serpent" and then by "mighty," suggesting perhaps "fixed."

Lest this seem like mere letter-play, it's worth noting that the Anglo-Saxon poem thematically explores the permanence of words and letters. It either/both imagines a "moth" eating/swallowing words, a "thief in the darkness" or/and it imagines a reader reading a text without being "at all wiser for the words he consumed." This, we might imagine, is a reader who is not reading by the materiality of the letter.

The material pleasures, possibilities, and performances of individual and indivisible letters are at play in the various works of Lutz, Oppen, and the anonymous poet of these Anglo-Saxon challenges. This inter-century reading is a necessity: Carl Pyrdum noted at Get Medieval recently that there are important ways to read open-software and Windows-hacking through understanding that "Medieval book enthusiasts were DIYers. They made their own books. They copied texts they liked, freely editing and recomposing--or hacking, remixing, and cut-and-pasting, to use the right lingo." In other words, the constitution of texts, sentences, and even words were "open" to medieval readers and bookmakers.

Reading the work of 20th century poets such as Oppen and of course Susan Howe alongside the work of the Anglo-Saxon poet-compilers offers as a way to disturb the notion of originality and of postmodernism as peculiar and unparalleled. In short, it offers a way to read our now as also someone else's now. It takes the text back from a notion of an author or authority: the open in the Oppen, so to speak.

"I read very slowly," says Gary Lutz. He wants "books that are not page turners but that defeat the notion of page turning." To read slowly is not simply to value a thoroughness of reading; it is to attend to materiality and to the letter, to note tensions and contents, contexts and confusions.

This matters now: not more than ever, but maybe more than ever to us. On Friday night John McCain promised that "As president of the United States, I want to assure you, I've got a pen. This one's kind of old. I've got a pen, and I'm going to veto every single spending bill that comes across my desk." It may not be too alarmist to see this as an election about whether or not we're going to attend to the letter of what we're saying and what we're seeing. What does it mean to "suspend a campaign" or to "win" a war? We've been asking such questions for 8 years and 12 centuries and more.

It matters now, too, because of M. NourbeSe Philip's book Zong!, which I wrote about recently.

Where we stand on the political issues we are presented with does not have to do with our partisan interests or our party support. The last letters of the Exeter Book read:

Þeah nu ælda bearn
londbuendra lastas mine
swiþe secað, ic swaþe hwilum
mine bemiþe monna gehwylcum.

[though now the children of men, land-dwellers, swiftly seek my prints, I at times conceal my track from each one of them.]

Before and beyond us, language has already disappeared: "hwilum" becomes "gehwylcum," time disappearing into nameless persons. We seek swiftly, "swiþe," only to have language readily hidden from us, "swaþe."

What is the form of literacy we are demanding in the 21st century?

Saturday, September 13, 2008


Zong! is, in the words of Nathaniel Mackey, "a brash, unsettling book" which "wants to chant or shout history down, shut history up." This book, by M. NourbeSe Philip as told to the author by Setaey Adamu Boateng, shuts history down precisely by reclaiming stories from history, refusing narrative. It does so with a passionate mining of words not just for fragmentation but for the usefulness of fracture, for all of what lies hidden (erased) in the visual and aural potentialities of words.

The cover describes Zong! as such:
In November, 1781, the captain of the slave ship Zong ordered that some 150 Africans be murdered by drowning so that the ship’s owners could collect insurance monies. Relying entirely on the words of the legal decision Gregson vs Gilbert—the only extant public document related to the massacre of these African slaves—Zong! tells the story that cannot be told yet must be told. Equal parts song, moan, shout, oath, ululation, curse, and chant, Zong! excavates the legal text. Memory, history, and law collide and metamorphose into the poetics of the fragment. Through the innovative use of fugal and counterpointed repetition, Zong! becomes an anti-narrative lament that stretches the boundaries of the poetic form, haunting the spaces of forgetting and mourning the forgotten.

The image below cannot do justice to the intimacy and care of Philip's work, and I apologize to you and her for the damage my photograph does (I wish my html skills allowed me to represent her work more accurately - though no electronic version can be accurate in this case). I can only say that I hope that in writing about this, the first page in the book, from "Zong #1," I'll lead readers to find the actual book, out this week from Wesleyan, and read it in her intended display. I will note that the poem "Zong #1" continues over the page, so here I'm fracturing Philip/Boateng's fragment - but hopefully usefully.

As it unfolds horizontally - across the horizon of both page and ocean - and through time - with some awful inevitability - "Zong #1" seems to stutter or staccato its letters, "w w w." What will result from this, one wonders? The "a wa" at the end of line 1 anticipates "away," an absence that is felt on the page even as it attempts to express itself. Similarly, "w a t" on the next line gestures towards our "wait" for story/history even as it cannot possibly fulfill "wait" alone. Within this poem, letters are not missing so much as words are exploded and become of use to us as they (refuse to) resolve into letter combinations. Even as one is tempted to call their formation valuable, one has to resist both the idea the formation needs to happen or that value is what we want here: to want value would be to comply with the captain and owners of the slave ship Zong.

(And, for that matter, why reach for English words in attempting to form expression, this poems seems to ask.)

This "w a t" leads on the next line to "er" - to error, to uncERtainty, but also to "water," to where We ARE(n'T). The poem proceeds by expressing, never quite paradoxically, an uncertain attempt at expression: one could read this page as attempting to reveal a phrase, perhaps "one good day[']s water of want," or "our water was good one day, water of want." Any attempt, however, to name such a phrase instantly becomes a betrayal of the poem; it betrays by providing a resolution where none was achieved, and it betrays by eliding what I take to be a gesture acknowledging the drowning slaves. Rather than seeing this as a poem read left to right, top to bottom, we must also see it as a poem whose letters are floating upwards, to the water's surface, where they break into pockets of (un)heard language; simultaneously, these letters might be drowning African bodies descending - an idea given possibility in the African names that "footnote" the pages of the first section of the book, 221 in total. Here I, as a reader and critic, am fumbling in the limits of my circles of knowledge, which is exactly part of the recovery that Philip has set herself to and in turn, in necessarily circular fashion, sets us to in her footsteps.

Unlike other examples of poetry which attempts to fragment words and even syllables, then, such as P.Inman or Clark Coolidge, Philip's work is not making a point about combination and recombination, about the infinite expressive possibilities of letters. What actually gets expressed - the legal decision, which she includes in her book - can only make us aware of the ways she and we might "deeply distrust this tool I work with -- language" and also the ways she is both, in her words, "censor and magician." Rather than using that as the springboard for refusing to work with and through language, however, she acutely renders the vitality of expression. This must be told, or not-told.

What I've written above is a first foray into this book. My writing is a necessity of beginning a communal conversation, a refusal of silence. I do not want to read this book alone. I do not want to shout down history alone. I do not want alone to think about what it means for me to read this as an Englishman in America. Where are my ancestors in this hi/story. I want to do all of this. This is the "not-tell[ing]", the anti-narrativizing we need to do. Philip is offering us a way of thinking against the idea the "we die alone." She is offering us a way of thinking through what a story is and does, damage and recuperation. She offers us, for those Africans and through them and their erasure by white English society, "the sustenance / in want."