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How everything of true depth to the individual struck me as being unnamed, and thereby unsayable even as its shadow in the form of desire swept across one.
— Michael Heller (191–92)
Naming is important in Waterwork, yet ‘the names would be far — / would be far beyond’ (7). The skeins of language that make up the five sections of this book are an attempt to approach experience and the world beyond names, ‘To feel nature spew ink...’ (6), yet in doing so they realise the impossibility of that task. Language is continually put to work by the dual action of naming and ‘unnaming’. The poems engage with myth, with philosophy, particularly the phenomenology of seeing, and with scientific language, specifically the marine sciences and the naming practice of taxonomy. The language is often meticulous, registering impingements of the sensed world on the speaker. I borrow this sense of impingement from Michael Heller on George Oppen, who writes: ‘For Oppen, the image . . . is neither descriptive nor decorative but investigatory. It registers instead an impingement of a world upon him, and in following out in a phenomenological manner the dictates of this new knowledge, the element of vision becomes a kind of thinking.’ (199) Impingement becomes that inexplicable point at which experience (a glance, a surface, a smell, a text message) twinges the body, and leaves a trace of itself in language.
Opening the book can feel like approaching an ant nest in a car. You quickly realise that you need to make a series of reversals — slow down, stop, get out, move up close — to be on the same scale as what is occurring on the page. The first lines signal a concern with vision as an enduring process:
The mind trips over
the eye’s event
There is no referent in that first couplet, the event is all within the eye. Then, the third line (re)connects the act of seeing to the continual time event of breath. It also signals an interest in synaesthetic experience, and a related unease with the stratification of the senses. It is, in a sense, unthinkable, yet productive for that unthinkability. Like a koan, it clears a space.
In a later poem in the same sequence ‘Aquatics Of’, we read, ‘The marine scientist / unnames them’, then a number of precise, optic images are listed:
green pulsing xenia
purple tip staghorn coral
chocolate chip sea star
swollen brain coral
The descriptions seem to be informed by the kinds of lensical technologies used in the marine sciences. The coral is captive to an illuminating electric light. The magnification of the lens clarifies and enriches the subject at the same time as it sets up a contemplative distance between the watcher and the object. The mock scientific table works as a defamiliarizing device, forestalling the Romantic mode that a poem about the ocean (or any poem on the sublime, the immense) could fall into. Immediately following the list, we read:
Enough to blush
The parsing letters,
To flush words
These, some of the few lines in the collection that connect up in parallel rhymes, begin to open out the project of ‘unnaming’: an attempt to read through taxonomies which would reduce the enormous living complexity of the ocean to names; to see the world as something of itself rather than merely the subject of our gaze. There is a sense of life forming from matter in these poems:’Bits of intelligence float’ (12).
In ‘méduse’, the third part of the sequence, we read the line, ‘looking she experiences the refusal of experience’ (31). This is an unambivalently philosophical statement. It suggests a state of being poised, caught reflexively in a moment, stilled. Riggs invokes the Gorgon Méduse, both Medusa and ‘jellyfish’ in French, who turned all those who looked at her to stone. Medusa could only be approached by feeling one’s way blindly, ‘as if emotion saw’ (31). Deep ocean, something we can approach only through the bracketing of media and technology, functions as a space to feel out the possibilities of the unseen. ‘méduse’ is made up of 26 brief and crystalline, open form, numbered poems, all of roughly the same size or length. A single long line scrolls across the bottom of each page at the same vertical position on the page. These lines end each poem, but they also suggest a path slantwise from the work: reading across the poems by following this single line, leaping from page to page. Lines from méduse, Riggs writes, ‘overlap, and alter lines found in my notebooks’. A list of almost thirty writers (among them George Oppen, Michel Foucault, Hélène Cixous, Gerald Manley Hopkins) makes apparent the breadth of reference. It is a studious work that benefits from being studied.
The title of the fourth section of the sequence, ‘The Responsibilities of The Champagne Flutes’, plays on Jean Paul Sartre’s speech for the opening ceremony of UNESCO in Paris in 1946, ‘The Responsibility of the Writer’, quoted from at the beginning of the section. Sartre uses the example of the glass in front of him, which, as he devastatingly points out, is not changed by naming it ‘a glass’. It stays on the table, it doesn’t move. His final provocation is that ‘...if truly to speak is to assemble words that don’t change situations, the writer can speak in utter irresponsibility’ (55). Sartre’s proposition gets to the heart of the material effects of language. If words don’t ‘do’ anything, then can a writer, as a writer, be responsible to something other than language itself: a culture, a belief, a notion of truth?
The usual modes of descriptive language are avoided in the poems that follow; there is little sense of a someone looking at an object or event as it occurs. This section is the one most interested in language as artifice. A pictorial, framed scene is denied, allowing the abundant language, contained in paractatic sentences, to be activated. The interplay of the epigraph by Sartre and poems seems to suggest that the most irresponsible language is that which rests on accreted meanings and usages; that which assists the shrinking and shrivelling of language rather than its growth. Yet the interplay was for me too one-sided: Sartre’s proposition loomed so large over the poems it was hard for them to have a life of their own, as something more than a response to his proposition.
Compared to the other sections, the poems here are congeries of the everyday. We could, at least for the first paragraph, imagine a few moments out of a morning in Paris:
A day of awnings and fruitless steps. Pause. Something glinting and appar-
ent and political in what she slices. A frowning song. An element of ebony.
Catchfruit. Actual lemons. Various forms of imprisonment. A kerosene lip,
and three whales in a plastic bag. What good are the rescuers, being so very
good. And the prison bars made of wood, when we have a saw. I saw you
back behind the screen, mimicking movement. And smiles. Connection.
Nearly neon outline of a chin. (57)
The simple sound repetitions of awnings/pause, glinting/political, element/ebony, good/wood (etc.) are to me reminiscent of the work of that exemplary American in Paris, Gertrude Stein. There is a familiar sense in Riggs’ language of sentences working themselves out as they go, and a closeness of language to thought. A sense of light is through the poem, signaled for me in the word ‘catchfruit’. The skipping surfaces of this section enact a kind of circularity: ‘What good are the rescuers, being so very good, and the prison bars made of wood, when we have a saw.’
The final section, ‘Pigments’, written as a collaboration with a visual artist, continues the themes of seeing with emotion, and loosening up the stratification of the senses. Being alive, sensate, and political, is here seen to be a type of listening through picking up scraps of image and sound from the mediasphere, of being attentive and still:
To hear them the Atlantic curves away
The shots in Kosovo too close
So that the letter e catches in the waves
washing into remaining stashes of petrol
Questions posed as statements become a distributed form of questionhood; the question is turned back onto the words and sentences themselves. A distanced intimacy is created, with a sometimes offhand style that recalls Ted Berrigan’s ‘I am here now writing this’ poems. The theme of water and its related sensations, if it is intended to carry this far across the collection, is not as central here. It is replaced by a kind of listening over media: the aether replaces the ocean.
The wonderfully titled chain of minuscule decisions in the form of a feeling is another collection of five sequences, but of a very different kind. It takes linguistic risks to create a work that, both at first glance and after spending time with it, looks unlike most other books of poems. It is literally a chain, a series of discrete parts linked together sequentially and through a common source text. There is a concern with reproduction, with language breaking up and reforming around a central point. Each section reinvents the central section — the fund of language that the book works from — employing diagrammatic forms, typography and punctuation and type tone; yet it isn’t, at least primarily, concrete or visual poetry. I felt, as I opened it, a sense of wordlessness; that I had no language to respond to it.
Four of the five sequences appear to be iterations, or versions in the dub sense (one track is dropped out and you’re left with a skeletal grammar), or mediations, or corruptions, of the central section. Certain words and phrases from here reoccur within the sections that bracket it leaving you with faint pulses of déjà vu. It appears as if these sections have been composed partly through chance procedures, though it’s not obvious how.
The first iteration of the sequence is a series of squares, one to a page, made of rows of underscores, interrupted here and there by a word or a phrase. The visual effect is of an electronic version of a censored letter in which no trace remains of what has been removed. If you attempt to read this as a score, registering the absences as if they were rests, it stutters along. It is an obdurate work, astonishingly resistant to the reader’s attempts to make connections between the words.
The second section uses the conceit of the list. Eighty phrases, ten to a page in various configurations, are numbered and organized into vertical lists. The lines often seem as if they were cut from elsewhere, as if, like errata slips, they have lost (or slipped from) their place:
31 commas become excla-
32 Have I discovered your hair
33 how its topography of
34 And that building a mouth.
35 like waves: she was after,
36 and solitude in 2007 B.C.
37 elegance of handmanship
38 deafly or blindly (not both)
39 Zadkine. The year is 1066.
40 Like cooking I invent each
Hank Lazer has written of another work that references the errata slip — Joan Retallack’s 1993 collection errata 5uite — that ‘[if] we attend to our own processes in sense-making, and in delight at the disturbance of habitual forms of sense-making, our own phenomenology of reading becomes itself a heuristic device.’ Similarly, these poems generate a field, a terrain, for thinking. The final poem in the sequence reads in part:
73 everywhere, diesel, spirits
75 populated, blank: both.
76 interruptions of hand
77 disoriented destinies, unaware of
78 what you reach for is the sheer
79 leaves of thyme lately it was like
80 the sky responds to us personally
Freed from the assumption of a necessary relationship to the lines before and after, the lines remain open. The poems are charged by the defamiliarizing structure of the numbers. Lay a pencil across the numbers and the work changes; it becomes recognizable as ‘a poem’; take it away and there is discord. The conceptual leaping back and forth between these as list of random elements and lines of a poem electrifies the work.
The fourth section is diagrammatic, the arrangement of words on the page appearing at first like part of an instruction manual. Vertical pointers — “|” “||”“\” — are overlaid onto a minimal arrangement of words, resembling the bar code of analogue cataloguing systems, at times linking up words and indicating reading paths down the page. One of the questions these sequences ask is to do with how absence is imagined, and how it can be effected poetically and politically.
The middle section, from which the sequence echoes outward, reads to me as much as an essay on poetics as a long poem, not only because it is structured as prose but because it is full of lines that suggest the processes of their own making, ‘The words creep in through the back way, we cannot help them.’ (37) In Word Sightings, Riggs lists a number of responses to Stein’s Tender Buttons that could well be applied to her own work: ‘amusement, frustration, surprise, delight, bewilderment...’ (xii). The writing here is also, at times, drily humorous, ‘The chop of the chicken into pieces in France. In Morocco the entire carcass on a hook. In my country, the invention of nuggets.’ (35)
Certain themes crop up across both books: dates and times; places, particularly Africa (Uganda, Ghana, Rwanda) and la francophonie (Morocco, Cameroon, Mali, Senegal), non-Western foods and spices (baklava, mango, tea). The effect is one not so much of place — though it is important that Riggs is writing from Paris, and the particular nexus of New York and Paris experimentalism she is situated in — but of being placed geopolitically and historically.
The collection is deeply concerned with trace, mental epiphenomena, and the impression that words leave. It is a composition, too: it’s exciting to see the previous section reinvented with the palpable motion of separating a page and turning it over. What Riggs has termed in her criticism ‘media angst’ — the frustration of working in the sightless medium of poetry — is evident in her own. Her other two published works — 60 textos and 28 télégrammes — suggest an ongoing interest poetry’s engagement with media and technology.
Riggs’ work is germane to a period in which reading practices have become so seemingly randomized and brief, and distributed across so many types of media; a time in which we are living among those offcuts or errata slips of language. As has been often said of hypertext and new media writing, the poems externalize some of those mind processes to do with reading: the words link up in non-linear ways, they literally fade away, disappear, and re-occur. The sophisticated technical experiments employed seem less an encouragement to play the works than to register their visualized silences. Riggs work is a reminder that the ability to make words move and link up in unusual ways is not new to new media writing, and was already realisable in paper and ink.
Perhaps one of the lasting effects of chain of minuscule decisions... will be the offer it makes of a connection, a bridge, between the literary and visual experiment going on in France and in French, and its counterpart practitioners in the anglophone world. Both collections suggest ways that poetry might look if there is more of an intermedia conversation between the visual (or for that matter, the sound arts and electronic arts) and poetry. The collections are adamantly and self-consciously not ‘books of poems’; not, that is, collections of discrete, aesthetic objects, but use the technology of the book to make big, ambitious works of art in spite of, and with a sharp awareness of, the world’s irreducibility to language.
Michael Heller, ‘Encountering Oppen’, Uncertain Poetries, Salt, 2005.
Hank Lazer, review of _errata 5uite_ by Joan Retallack, online [http://wings.buffalo.edu/epc/authors/retallack/review1.html], Edited by Kenneth Sherwood and Loss Pequeño Glazier, 1994.
Sarah Riggs, Word Sightings: Poetry and Visual Media in Stevens, Bishop, and O’Hara, Routledge, 2002.
Tim Wright lives in Sydney. He is one of the editors of When Pressed (whenpressed.net), an online journal with an interest in the crossover between poetry, media, and art practice, to be launched in mid 2008.