On the Day the Blood Let Fall:
The Mastery of Mystery in Fanny Howe’s [SIC] and Forged
This piece is 16,000 words or about thirty-five printed pages long.
Over the last decade or so, in experimental writing magazines like O-blek, Five Fingers Review, Conjunctions, and Hambone, we have seen forming a series of pieces by poet and novelist, Fanny Howe. Most of these pieces are based on the Gnostic’s belief that human experience is always Hell on Earth. Howe tells us that ‘the Gnostic view is hidden in all religion which is why it emerged among all religions for a time, as a separate point of view. Plotinus, Augustine, all would feel the same outpouring of matter from a distant unknowable’ (‘Re: Re: Query’). These texts, in part as a result of this Gnostic foundation, contain speakers whose disembodied voices we hear through the walls of their prisons. Generally as a direct result of their macro-structures in terms of stanzaic arrangement and repetition, connotatively rich diction (including allusions which pepper the pages), and a playful free-association that arises out of the sound of the words as a means to generate the language, two particularly delightful and troubling books that we will here focus on at once engross and puzzle the reader who must play the part of the detective with bloodhound unleashed in an attempt to master the mystery, hoping to discover the ‘distant unknowable’ of these books’ particulars.
A poem can absorb contradictory logics,
In [SIC] the interplay between Howe’s verse couplets and proverse paragraphs narrated in the first-person (but for the exception of one passage), and moving back and forth between the past- and present tenses, creates for a reader, by virtue of the interruption, the kind of anti-absorptive experience that one experiences when coming up against a [SIC] in a cited passage. Bernstein continues:
Pushing further, impermeable elements may fuse together
As a result of these two battling forms of narrative found in the verse couplets and the proverse sections that are at once anti-absorptive and absorptive, impenetrable and engaging, a reader of [SIC] is continually drawn in and deflected onto trajectories outward and away from the story; that is, while the reader of both books is tossed out of the covers by the occluded narrative, the intoxicating beauty that is immediately evident on the surface of Howe’s language serves always only to draw the reader back in as s/he tries once again to construct a narrative from the rags. Indeed, the experience of reading both [SIC] and Forged recalls a certain jarring sensation felt when suddenly struck awake by a memory, a confrontation with history.
She cannot take the transcendent position of the avant-garde poet erasing the lyric self from texts, nor can she take the transcendent position of negative theology as it supposes possibilities of kicking away the ladder of language en route to the ‘beyond’ of God, nor can she take the transcendent position of Derridean philosophers whose critique of language depends on their transhistorical view of it working from far above the mire of day-to-day necessities of taking or displacing one’s own stances within it. (78)
Despite Howe’s then somewhat tenuous relation to a certain avant-garde idiom, to linguistic theory, to ‘language’ writing, I would still like before proceeding further to engage a bit of a digression to present the poetics of some of these ‘language’ writers in order to situate Howe’s poetics in some sort of ‘experimental’ context.
Poets ‘do’ things with words, as do readers and listeners, both acts grounded in the fact that words are themselves things, ‘objects,’ ‘material,’ ‘phenomena’ as such. The shapes of letters in words and the music of those shapes read aloud are intimately engaged in the production of lexical meaning, which is itself different from yet inextricably bound to whatever any poem can be said or thought to ‘mean.’ (Ratcliffe ‘Sound’ 147)
When applied to literature, this concept is usually not so pressing; when discussing, say, political rhetoric or advertising, our very souls are at stake. From an idealistic point of view, Howe’s work tenuously fulfills the promise of the ‘language’ experiment of the 1970s and ’80s, for inviting a reader to make way through such difficulty, through the inner-mechanisms of poetry, may in fact somehow paradoxically bring about the ability in the political arena to wrest power away from our oppressors and thus see what they are up to, as readers come to terms with the fact that ‘they,’
through their use of persuasive rhetoric, continually create texts that work against us by appealing to our sense of intellectual or aesthetic pleasure which, more often than not, can be turned into a means of strengthening, justifying, or concealing a someone’s hidden agenda. These little books then expose the myth of individual identity, engaging with feminism, Marxism, and Gnosticism from an untold number of perspectives. Through the gaze of history these works invite us to ask the pressing question: ‘What is English now, in the face of mass global migrations, ecological degradations, shifts and upheavals in identifications of gender and labor? What are the implications of writing at this moment, in precisely this “America”?’ (Kim 110). For the detective in pursuit, detail is everything; the word and the world begin to merge.
‘...So long shall Christians be born there; and being first made meet, shall from thence be Translated, to be made partakers of the Inheritance of the Saints of Light.’
from Phænomena quædam Apocalyptica ad Aspectum
Novi Orbis configurata. Samuel Sewell, 1697
Though we have thus far been considering both books in tandem, let us now begin the closer part of our analysis with [SIC], with an example of how this anti-absorptive, fragmented work contains within it an absorptive density, an almost prison-like tightness of language. This can be best illustrated by describing the kind of detective-like process that a reader wanting to experience this writing at its fullest must engage, dictionary in hand. I’ll begin by discussing some various absorptive resonances and relevant connotations present in a single unifying thread in the piece: the connotatively rich word, the name of ‘May.’
These frames are read not only at the level of structure but at the level of historical understanding insofar as we all participate, however unwittingly, in a story over which we have no control. ‘Breaking the frame’ is not some kind of avant-gard nihilism; it is a way of ‘reading’ the nature of framing itself. (‘Framed’ 77)
As such, Howe’s speaker/ protagonist in [SIC] is given permission to voice a response to these entrapping narrative frames which surround her by admitting: ‘There was NO WAY OUT of anywhere.’
The metaphorical interpretation of the demonic possessions in the New Testament was also gaining ground. ‘To have a devil’ explained a writer in 1676, ‘was a kind of phrase or form of speech.’ ...These trends were emphasized by the tendency of many seventeenth century intellectuals to question the existence of Hell as a localized place of physical torment, and to re-interpret it symbolically as a state of mind, an inner-hell. (160)
In the Puritan era, supposed dæmonic possession was named ‘Maleficium’ and equated with illness. Thomas goes on to discuss how it became increasingly difficult ‘to distinguish maleficium from natural illness,’ thus leading to an increasing inability to definitively accuse women of dæmonic possession (162). This is obviously most interesting to me. At a time when superstition was increasingly replaced by reason, the language changed in tandem with that ideological change; indeed, the culture for its very existence increasingly relied upon reason, the reason out of which much of the American governmental system is forged; yet, despite these linguistic changes toward the rational, the sickness with which women were afflicted has remained, to a large extent, unchanged. An articulate woman is a sick woman, a mistake, and is to be contained.
There is also the possibility that the Salem witch trials served as nothing more than a valve by which the community let off steam. They adopted the desperate piety and sense of impending doom from late medieval religion, but rejected the festivities and color which softened the harshness of that theology. As the pressure built up, the society looked for a release, and it pounced on the first opportunity — the witch trials. (198)
The women accused of witchcraft were only scapegoats for larger crises of faith in the community and, as I see it, the trials were an event which hastened the end of the Puritan era and ushered in a new age of supposed reason. Yet despite this softened theology and look toward reason, we come no closer to naming the craziness with which Native Americans and Blacks have been treated throughout this country’s entire history. This country, despite its declarations of ‘liberty and justice for all,’ needs it seems an ‘Other’ (an Iraq, an Al-Queda, etc.) in order to survive, for in supreme bad faith these Humanist ideals of liberty and justice only take on any real meaning against a backdrop of their opposites.
The working class is potentially revolutionary because it is indispensable to the capitalist economy, not because it is marginal to it. In the same way women are central — not marginal — to the process of reproduction. It is precisely because the ruling order cannot maintain the status quo without the continued exploitation and oppression of [women] that it seeks to mask their economic role by marginalizing them on the cultural, ideological and political levels. (171)
In obverse response to the above societal condition noted by Moi, May rails against the corrupt capitalist wielders of authority, and the police who arrested her, when she tells us:
They are the winners out there, ambitious to a point where only their flesh and blood matters. Nothing is lower than a white collar criminal but that is what they are. They came into my apartment armed with warrants. Red light, two cars, deep blue flashes. It was hell.
Also, May tells us of a man (her lover) with whom she once drove, who told her, ‘Where a broken line meets heartbeats along the mount to solitude, lift up your fist for freedom in the five-fingered light.’ Women are still required to fight, for they are still scapegoats, and though they are no longer accused falsely of witchcraft, they are still, as May says, at the mercy of ‘the officers’ who ‘decide if you are worthy or not — that is, sick enough — to receive this favor’ of ‘the tender touches of a nurse.’ The definition of the illness has changed but the illness remains.
The Salem witch-scare began quietly and gradually in the home of Reverend Samuel Parris, minister in the local church. Several of the young girls of the village had taken a liking to listening to Parris’s colored domestic servant, Tituba, tell stories of the supernatural which she had learned in Barbados.... At what point this harmless pastime turned into the tragic action which was to sweep the community, no one knows.... By the end of the winter, several of the children began to suffer from a strange malady. They would, for no apparent reason, fall into convulsions, scream inhumanly, and engage in other extraordinary behavior. (191)
If Howe’s reader, searching for clues, makes certain inductive and deductive leaps and associations, there emerges the collaged image of poor, pathetic May, overcome with fitful, convulsive sneezing, as a result of breathing in the pollinated air of spring; overcome even by the dæmonic spirit; and is thus thought to be dangerous by those who are the products of the same Puritan ideology responsible for persecuting the women at the Salem witch trials in 1692. Repeating history, May is cast out of society, even killed. As Howe writes in the anti-absorptive verse fragments that come near the end of her book: ‘I see your past/ steps, witness from one chair/ and note an electric/ you in sequence.’ We find here May’s death sentence not as an antiquated decree to be hung in the gallows of Puritan New England, but given as a modernized judgment to be executed in the electric chair: the death sign directing the contemporary American judicial system.
...when [she] recently gave an invited lecture to the Engineering Honors Club at the University of Southern California on the topic of ‘What is Poetry?’ [Perloff] learned that most of these juniors and seniors — high I.Q. students, all of them — had never read any poetry and couldn’t cite the name of a single poet. (n.p.)
And I would argue, based on my experience as both a writer and teacher at CSU, Hayward, an arguably more ‘working-class’ institution than USC, that Perloff’s assessment is not far off the mark as a fair generalization for the entire country. In such a context, we need to question the relevance to ‘the average reader,’ even in university, of Howe’s perhaps central questions in this work: Can gender ever really be expunged, collapsed? Can genre? That is, it is unlikely that any but the most experienced of sleuths (those to be found in Howe’s fiction, say) — ‘women and children, and even the occasional man,’ who consciously and deliberately ‘rushed backwards and forwards within an irreconcilable set of imperatives’ (Howe ‘Bewilderment’ 41) — would be able to respond to this work with anything but a too deep sigh of exhaustion. In fact, I can imagine that even the most well-to-do Harvard gruaduate would in the end have perhaps insurmountable trouble with this book, for it goes against the grain of some widely shared cultural assumptions of what a poem is, what a poem should do, what the experience of reading should be like. This text, as a characteristic piece of ‘language’ writing, challenges habits of attention to such a degree that many a reader would respond to it mistakenly with the confession, ‘I can’t read this,’ or ‘I don’t get it,’ or ‘this is nonsense.’
...how he kissed me under the Moorish wall and I thought well as well him as another and then I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes and then he asked me would I yes to say yes my mountain flower and first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will yes. (643-44)
And like Molly, May, before her silencing, defiantly takes up the pen, giving everlasting life to her voice. Though May’s voice is ultimately stilled by death, she gives birth to herself through the enduring materiality of ink on the page. Fanny Howe closes her book with an open letter composed by May which is addressed to ‘Mama’:
Mama, do push-ups and thank you for the sardines and crackers — and cigarettes. But I won’t be a good girl ever. You know that. When poverty comes in at the door, please leap out the window. I miss you but I’ve got to say I never knew where the value of my life really lay until it was too late, away, small as the stars inside my cosmic gaze. Signed May.
With the above letter a case for the freeing knowledge of writing is solidly made. May, like a true Gnostic, says to all women: ‘I say, Solid God, let them know that they are serving time, too, only they don’t know why.’ The only power, the only salvation, the only freedom, is in the acquiescence of knowing. ‘Poverty of spirit means lack of hubris and a non-aggressive approach to the world’ (Howe ‘Re: Re: Query’). And it is that belief, that faith, which remains the spectral aspect of Fanny Howe’s attraction.
The zoetrope...uses the persistence of motion principle to create an illusion of motion. It consists of a simple drum with an open top, supported on a central axis. A sequence of hand-drawn pictures on strips of paper are placed around the inner bottom of the drum. Slots are cut at equal distances around the outer surface of the drum, just above where the picture strips were to be positioned. To create an illusion of motion, the drum is spun; the faster the rate of spin, the smoother the progression of images. A viewer can look through the wall of the zoetrope from any point around it, and see a rapid progression of images. Because of its design, more than one person could use the zoetrope at the same time.
—from Zoetrope (on the Internet), William George Horner, 1834. See Works Cited, below.
How to talk about lacunae, to give voice to the ineluctable, standing on the limnal of what we can think and say in an attempt to let ‘others’ speak? Fanny Howe strives to show us that language, besides a framer of history, is a meaning-making object in itself, not a transparent veil through which we peer at the objects of the world. Consider as an analogy the popular myth that audiences of the first films had to learn gradually that a sequence of images on-screen equaled a narrative, some viewers even shocked at first that the locomotive that appeared to be bearing straight down on them was in fact nothing but light and shade projected. At first, it seems many may have seen these images as discrete and isolated from one another. Over time, however, audiences came to understand moving pictures as representations, a concatenation of such amounting to fluid narrative. From a slightly different angle, I imagine that the first viewers of images on the walls of caves (if in fact there ever were such viewers) didn’t necessarily understand that the buffalo-looking thing on the wall was a representation of the angry animal in real-time. Or perhaps the image was meant to be understood not as a representation at all, but instead inside a completely different paradigm as something ‘other’ made in worshipful reverence to the gods of the hunt. Perhaps the trouble is that over time this worshipful reverence of the material world that may have once been the goal of art has been forgotten, audiences becoming gradually and variously complacent. We, these many centuries later, have now forgotten to take note of the spectral in the common.
The work I like best sees itself and sees the world. It is ambi-centric, if you will. The writers I like are surprising, revelatory. They bring the underlying structures of language/ thought into consciousness. They spurn the facile. Though they generally don’t believe in the Truth, they are scrupulously honest about the way word relates to word, sentence to sentence. (‘Why’ 546)
This generalization seems a particularly helpful description of what is involved in reading Howe. Howe hopes in her work to get closer to actual experience by rejecting simple representation, suggesting that actual life in the Diaspora is in fact much more complex and difficult and mysterious than a simple story of a green leafy thing blowing in the wind; that a tree is in fact impossible to capture, ever, in all of its beauty and history and biology and weather and existence in time and space; that the very desire to capture the tree in the first place is somehow wrong-headed. The tree and the buffalo and the cast image of the animal, the plant, are creations of the godhead to be approached with worshipful awe as we read in Howe’s system the audible call of ‘this’ and story about ‘this’ in response, vibrating.
First I receive the impression of a time period as an experience of pure language, glimpses of actions, emotions and weathers. I jot down whatever comes through — in a rush of words.
I want to begin with taking note of the word ‘mine’ in the previous passage, a word which Howe has herself placed in quotes. Clearly uncomfortable with possessing language, for such possession violates her politics, Howe is simply aware that attempts at claims to colonize or control language are un-real and suspect. One must approach language with humility, for language can raise the spirits or be used to bury the dead. The word ‘mine,’ in fact, if we delve into layers of connotation found in the pages of the Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, not only suggests the possessive form of ‘I’ used predicatively, but is also both a verb for ‘an excavation made in the earth for the purpose of getting out ores, precious metals, stones, coal, etc.,’ and a noun for the place where such minerals may be obtained. Not unhappily, and purely by serendipity, this noun/ verb connotation within ‘mine’ resonates with ‘forged,’ which is both a noun that signifies a sort of fireplace or furnace where such mined metal is heated before shaping and a verb to signify the act of shaping that metal into a form. Here then the pounding action of forming metal into shape functions as a representative metaphor for writing, the manhandling of ‘...the difficult unruliness of language that has been the lyric’s territory since its origins’ (Rankine and Spahr 5). It is as if, even if by serendipity, Howe can’t help but work language in irony and paradox that absorbs, melds and settles, outward.
For me, bewilderment is a repetitive pause on a circular route and in both my stories and my poems, it could be the shape of the spiral that imprints itself in my interior before anything emerges on paper.
As I mentioned in the introduction, each of the 21 pages of this book contains seven lines, these lines grouped into for the most part different stanzaic arrangements on each page, but we do encounter some redundant stanzaic arrangement of considerable note. Again, as before, just as we begin to move forward through this text we recognize a repetition in that the poem on page 12 has the same stanzaic pattern as the one on page one: two lines, then three lines, and then a circling back to two lines. The poem on page 13 echoes back to page six with an arrangement of a tercet and then a quatrain, a pattern we see again on page 21. The poem on page 12 repeats the stanzaic arrangement of the poems on pages three and 15: couplet-tercet-couplet. Are we circling back and back, endlessly insular?
This is when I can’t watch certain of the words just fall and get kicked aside. I must salvage them because I have what amounts to faith in the fact that they will contribute to an as-yet unknown meaning.... But this is not a plan or an experiment. It is simply the way my poems come into existence and carry something out of my stories that is having a problem taking form there. (‘Bewilderment’ 62)
Further, the lack of punctuation in Howe’s lines allows in these lines for ‘Did I believe’ to be read as both emphatic statements and questions, as in ‘Did I believe!’ and ‘Did I believe?’ As well, the second use of ‘Did I believe...,’ by virtue of the stanzaic arrangement, its placement in a quatrain, enjambs easily with the line that follows: ‘like a fir tree in a children’s nursery’ (22). The image created with this simile makes little ‘sense’ insofar as the personification of a fir tree as an entity able to believe really leads us nowhere, but it is a delight nonetheless. We should note as well that each page, each poem, begins with a capital letter since each, despite the overall lack of punctuation in the piece, ends in a period, except pages 8, 15, 16, and 19. Those periods indicate the completion of a thought, closure, while ‘those missing periods were...just to suggest a slight very slight incompletion in the last thought’ (‘Re: Re: Query’).
Note 1. I use these two terms simultaneously since [SIC] is primarily written in the first-person (speaker) except for two passages in third person (narrator), one at the center of the book (‘May lies in her cell...’) and another — discussed late in this essay — on the last page of the text when the speaker reveals herself in third-person as agent, using her name to sign a letter: ‘Signed May.’ This subtle use of point of view creates in the book a conflation that is simultaneously an ‘I’ speaker and third-person narrator, which then both combine in effect to make a kind of protagonist, or character, May, who upon reflection tells her own fragmented story. The significance here is that a lyric poem, generally non-narrative, is usually not the place to find either a narrator or a protagonist, both of which one usually does however find in narrative fiction. As such, this text is at once lyric poem and prose narrative or neither one at all, Howe’s work instead forging its own new ground.
Note 2. With this term I take note of the fact that these sections at first glance look like simple blocks of prose, but then upon closer inspection the reader notices intentional line breaks that occasionally interrupt these otherwise prose blocks, e.g., on the fourteenth page we read: ‘Children on tiptoes feel the way I do most of each day,/ mingling among/ ....’ I believe that Howe in these passages thus attempts to write something which is neither wholly prose nor wholly verse but something in between: “proverse”. In fact, Howe says in interview that ‘[p]rose has just as much poetry in it as a poem does. It’s just in a rush to get somewhere and bears more guilt, always trying to justify itself’ (Poets).
Note 3. ‘Lyric is by definition innovative. When it stops being innovative it is no longer lyric’ (Rankine and Spahr 13).
Note 4. [SIC] is not paginated. This I believe to be an intentional choice in order to subtly accentuate the text’s overall sense of timelessness and sense of aporia, or open field placelessness. To honor what I believe to be the author’s intent, I will not include parenthetical citations after quoted passages of [SIC].
Note 5. By this term I mean loosely to suggest some mysterious entity like the one Louis Althusser termed ‘the ideological state apparatus.’
Note 6. Note the homophonic resonance with ‘mayday,’ the international distress signal, which comes from the French ‘m’aidez,’ which means ‘help me.’
Note 7. To offset the rather dreary tone of this book, as one reads one can hardly help but to hear in the background memory an echo of the lyric from the 1964 Motown hit, My Girl. Sung by The Temptations, My Girl begins with a very simple three-note phrase on the bass guitar accompanied by light taps on a snare drum. The base line makes for a sound that resembles, say, a beating heart. At the same time, very precise finger-snaps become the pulse of the whole song: straightforward, open, sort of casual and easy-going. Drums and voice boldly come forth together as lead singer David Ruffin sings, ‘I’ve got sunshine on a cloudy day.’ As the voices of the other Temptations enter — first the deep bass of Melvin Franklin descending on ‘do-do-do,’ joined then by all the voices on a richly harmonized ‘oo’ — something bewildering happens. We draw breath, deeply, the skin in secret places chilly with pleasure, exposing the play between antinomies expressed in the simplicity of Ruffin’s ‘When it’s cold outside, I’ve got the month of May’ — the lyric paradox (‘sunshine’/ ‘cloudy’; ‘cold outside’/ ‘May’), the resolution of which is found only in the perfect rest of love: my girl, May. With all the further richness and complexity in the song yet to come, the song never loses this simple feeling of swinging on a porch swing, out in the warm air of May. And within such complexity, reverberating from underneath, still, that simple, easy-going rhythm of the song. Total absorption.
Note 8. This is an allusion to Exodus 3:14 when the voice of God came from a burning bush, saying to Moses: ‘I AM THAT I AM,’ a sacred tautology which itself prefigures John 8:58-59:
Jesus said to them: ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was born, I AM.’
This allusion has significance insofar as it focuses on this book’s concerns with identity, bespeaking a brave, rebellious resistance against equating identity and value. One simply is and that’s enough, just as a poem simply is, and is for its own sake.
Note 9. Perhaps the most significant tautology in all of literature, even moreso perhaps than the four accounts of the crucifixion of Christ told and re-told in the Gospels to which this passage alludes, if obliquely, are the two Creation stories at the beginning of the book of Genesis. In Hebrew the word ‘k-r-a’ means at once ‘to read’ and ‘to call,’ and this same word is used in both accounts, a fact which is of some note.
In the first account, the things of the world are already named, prepared entirely for Adam’s pleasure. God says to Adam, ‘Behold I have given you every plant yielding seed that is on the surface of all the earth, and every tree which has fruit yielding seed...and to every beast of the earth and to every bird of the sky and to everything that moves on the earth which has life I have given...’ (Gen. 1:29-30). Imagine a slab of marble which the sculptor must read, teasing out the exact statue from within the formlessness of rock. While the sculptor in stone is, yes, still an artist, it is as if the statue that s/he makes is already extant. With this in mind, note, for example, how ‘ya’el,’ the Hebrew word for ‘ibex’ is the same word for the Hebrew verb ‘to climb.’ An ibex climbs. Form and content wed. Perfection. Eden.
In the second account God gives Adam the pleasure of naming the things. The narrator tells us of Adam: ‘And the man gave names to all the cattle, and to the birds of the sky, and to every beast of the field...’ (Gen. 2:20). In this version, Adam and God become co-architects of the things of Paradise although here Adam has more power than in the first telling, a power which ultimately undoes him. Imagine a potter getting his hands muddy in the stuff of language, moving from nothing to something, fashioning the names of things.
It is then perplexing why we have these two versions of the story of Creation, one in which Adam is more passive, reading the things, and one in which Adam is more active, naming the things. I hypothesize that the re-telling of the stories allows us to apprehend the double-edged connotation of ‘k-r-a.’ Moreover, I suggest that the compilers of Genesis juxtaposed the two versions for a specific, anti-absorptive reason: Leaving the two versions side-by-side allows the reader’s mind to gnaw on the problem, trying to figure out why it is that in one version we see Adam as reader and in the other we see Adam as writer. In this second version Adam is a maker, calling the things whatever the hell he wants to, and with that comes grave responsibility. He is on his own and terribly free. He doesn’t have to listen to God or to anyone else. It’s just him and the things. In this sense Adam takes on the hue of an artist, a rebel. Indeed, perhaps not by coincidence the word in ancient Greek for ‘poet’ means ‘maker.’ While the compilers of Genesis did not speak Ancient Greek, perhaps there is some mystical connection here between the portrayal of Adam and Eve in Genesis and the role of the artist in culture. God gave Adam and Eve one tiny instruction, ‘From any tree of the garden you may eat freely; but from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat from it you shall surely die’ (Gen. 2 16–17). But they couldn’t do it. Their naive curiosity, their inventiveness, the same rebellious impulse out of which society is born, undid them. Danger, danger!
Think about it. Where would we be without experimentation? On the one hand, we would still be naked in the snow, eating raw food with our fingers, diseased and wracked, dallying in the daisies, idle. Language would be eons away. Simple perfection. Bliss. As Sampson Reed (1800–80) from his Observations on the Growth of the Mind, Including Genius so aptly describes in this lyric passage:
Adam and Eve knew no language but their garden. They had nothing to communicate by words; for they had not the power of concealment. The sun of the spiritual world shone bright on their hearts, and their senses were open with delight to natural objects. In the eye were the beauties of paradise; in the ear was the music of birds; in the nose was the fragrance of the freshness of nature; in the taste was the fruit of the garden; in the touch, the seal of their eternal union. What had they to say?... (qtd. in Kern 41)
On the other hand, it must be remembered that without experimentation, without articulation, we would be without the benefits and comforts of a developed society and would therefore be without ‘reality’ TV, corrupt government, poultry factories, shopping malls, toxic waste dumps, nuclear bombs, and robotic rats with altered genes. It’s a paradox shown in the two versions of the Creation story. The compilers of Genesis hoped to persuade us that if we are going to make anything of enduring import happen at all, experimentation is necessary; yet, they hoped to convey, experimentation is risky and has serious repercussions.
Note 10. An ambiguity that Howe relies upon for free-association as a strategy of text-generation.
Note 11. We do however find some repeated words that seem to bear little or no special significance like ‘thick,’ an anti-absorptive gesture which helps to counter the text’s slight tendency toward mimesis or narrative.
Note 12. See, for example, Sir Walter Ralegh’s, ‘The Nymph’s Reply to the Shepherd’.
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———. “Why Don’t Women Do Language-Oriented Writing?” In the American Tree. Ed. Ron Silliman. Orono, ME: National Poetry Foundation, 1986. 544-46.
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———. Forged Sausalito, CA: The Post-Apollo Press, 1999.
———. ‘Re: Query’ from Scott Bentley. E-mail to the author. 23 March 2003.
———. ‘Re: Re: Query’ from Scott Bentley. E-mail to the author. 24 March 2003.
———. [SIC]. San Diego: Parentheses Writing Series, 1988.
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Scott Bentley was born in Burbank, California, in 1964. He received a BA from UC Santa Cruz in 1986 and an MA from UC San Diego in 1989. He is presently finishing an MFA at Mills College, in Oakland, CA. He teaches writing at CSU Hayward and elsewhere. He is the author of Edge (Birdcage Chapbooks, 1987), Out of Hand (Parenthesis Writing Series, 1989), Ground Air (O BOOKS, 1994) and The Occasional Tables (sub press, 2000). Bentley has co-translated with his wife, Marta, the work of Brazilian writer Regis Bonvicino and others, the latest translations appearing in The Pip Anthology of World Poetry of the Twentieth Century (Vol. 3) Nothing the Sun Could Not Explain: 20 Contemporary Brazilian Poets (Green Integer, 2003).
Jacket 25 — February 2004