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Author’s note: the following is an excerpt from “Fast Intertext,” slightly revised from a talk given at Wesleyan University, Center for the Humanities, for the conference “New York School Poets and Their World,” May 4‒5, 2006
“Implacable poet. [… ] Shattered rocks” writes Barbara Guest, having positioned these phrases on facing pages of the extended poetic montage “Ideas. As they find themselves… ,” which opens her book «Rocks on a Platter» (1999:10‒11). Binding these two phrases, is a structural inversion decidedly like something Mallarmé might have written in «Un Coup De Dés»,1897. What he did indeed write is space, the permanently revolutionary layout entering the canon of literature that we read since. All poems in the aftermath of his spatialization of poetry seem written in acknowledgment, and it is in this spirit that we understand Guest’s poem also: the entirety of the page given over to the words “Implacable poet” answered across the gutter to the verbally cluttered facing page where the words “Shattered rocks” sit, composing and composed by page space. The spaced intertext presupposes Mallarmé’s spacing and composing for the double-page spreads that comprise «Un Coup De Dés». Take note: in Guest’s poetry, an intertext concatenating materialized page space and lyrical spacing for verbal fragments, together with the score of these to be performed, is affirmed.
In the above microcosm of the double-page spread emptiness on the left is answered by verbal and visual repleteness on the right: silence is answered by noise: noise is non-silence, and the logic spaced thus across the page from silence. Confounding the dialectic is a spacing of another sort in constellating probability as inevitable. Mallarmé writes:
from nullified regions
the old man toward this supreme conjunction with probability”
(trans. Weinfield, 1994:132)
A throw of the dice performs an instance of probability. So, too, the shattering rock performs an instance of probability — the thetic act, as Kristeva has said, is that very expenditure of erupting force that articulates chance: “The alternative is to attempt to perform the signifying and thetic act (a “throw of the dice”) but by shattering the essential unity of the throw into a multiplicity of chancy and chance-determined fragmentations … ” (Kristeva, 1984: 227). The author of the phrase “shattered rocks” need not be told about the decentered image of which verbal fragments are made, in accord with modern lyric poems. Master of the frangible fragment of memory, Barbara Guest here demonstrates what she knows. “Shattered rocks”–this expenditure is metonymic of contingent chancy-determined fragmentation yet also of noise, noise, that in having no pitch, we suspect of chaos.
Let the record show that Guest imitates spacings from Mallarmé, but not only he. The stair-step line that may be found in her work, invoking Mayakovsky’s format for scoring oral performance as well as Mallarmé’s articulated epistemology, suggests a broader frame of reference. Other poems of hers arranging themselves differently on the page argue that it is misleading to rely solely on one poet for this interpretation in some works, however. In “The Farewell Stairway” the spiraling stairway from which the descending ladies wave is an allusion to the spiral deployment by Balla in his proto-Futurist painting «The Stairway of Farewells»,1908. Neither logical or performative, but mimetic in analogy with the spiraling stairs depicted, the logic of spacing is yet again different. Sources notwithstanding, what is being tapped by Guest is the poetics of modernity for which the spiral–that is to say, a mode of vortex–together with the fragmented, decentered image distributed across the page and presupposing the logics of chance, has an already-written status.
Yet these very differentials of spacing express the semantics of the blank deployed by Guest. Her entire oeuvre and in particular «Quill, Solitary APPARITION», 1996, as well as «Rocks on a Platter» foreground an intertextual usage of space: space as a sign of spacing after Mallarmé being most marked although not exclusively his abstract materialized page.
From “Fell, Darkly” in
«Quill, Solitary APPARITION», is a left-hand page blank except
for lines positioned low:
marked : the logic (of no other place);
in the game ______________( a wild king is drawn)
The right-hand page being sparse enough, but for phrases, the first placed high:
of many colors
In the presence of
an arm (perhaps
–of his speech)
(Guest, 1996: 28‒9)
“Nothing [… ] will have taken place [… ] but the place [… ] except [… ] perhaps [… ] a constellation,” Mallarmé writes in all caps, distributing the words across successive spreads. This is where Guest’s intertextual relation to spatialization dilates to accommodate differing modalities. «Quill, Solitary APPARITION» does propose much spaciousness for the place in which, as the above sample indicates, conjuring (say for Tarot) is concatenated with the game, the fill-in blank suggesting rather a game as yet unspecified; this constellation of spacing is met with a cut and splayed dispersion of phrases, the semantics of which lends concreteness to the space of the page. As in «Rocks on a Platter», in which fragments of fable and of image coexist as dissonant linguistic and literary events, this latter page from «Quill, Solitary APPARITION» constellates spatialization that we read as collage.
The word “clairvoyance” in the one of two epigraphs by Joyce introduces the poem to provide an interpretant with which to read the spacing of the pages that follow. As for the double-page spread in question, it can be argued that Guest has counterposed two logics of spacing: and it is not a stretch to say that this admirer of Arp’s anarchy has presupposed for her composition an articulation of spacing by which intuited constellation is co-present with induced collage. In particular, we take our hint from the right-hand page, wherein the Latin citation de facto (a blazon, in Kristeva’s scheme of things) provides the hypogram for the poetic vocabulary of embodied concreteness, as suggested in the words “colors,” “arm” and “speech,” an actuality furthered through a materialized double, of space that also includes very conspicuous graphic notation: parentheses and colon. The presence of the colon is interesting. Over-determined in the codes of prosody (the variable foot instigated by William Carlos Williams), again, as punctuation, and, again, as materialized scoring for textual performance, the colon is an element in the form of thought cited as spacing, its theory and practice. «Un Coup De Dés» may be giving warrant to the preeminence of spacing as a form and pattern of thought, but assuming Mallarmé to be the precursor of all logics of the page is to overlook that since his example, poets now presuppose that spacing be their prerogative to freely compose in verbal, visual and graphical registers.
The point to be reiterated is that the semantic of space is an intertext for Guest if we read her themes of clairvoyance and Tarot as an effect of chance, since it is owing to Mallarmé’s having mobilized the page for the uncertainty in which occult thought is cast and made to submit to the modern world of probability. But not all chance is the same.
Much profundity and even more confusion inform the concept of chance. The darling of Symbolists, Dadaists and Cubists, and beloved of the Surrealists, Abstract Expressionists and Gutai, and moreover, scripted into art projects beyond these styles, the concept Chance deserves an encyclopedia all to itself. The following schema, however, will at least articulate the kinds of ordering encountered in some modern forms of poetry and art:
1) Probabilistic randomness. Throwing dice, shuffling a deck of cards, pulling cut shapes from a hat, letting string fall, flinging paint from a stick, are all techniques for generating randomness or accident, though none more systematically than relying on the Rand Equation for Generating Random Numbers, in determining choice uncoupled from taste. Chance is a covering term for phenomena which, in our view, is beyond our ability to predict; we should revisit our assumptions, however. Does the falling string determine «Three Standard Stoppages» occur by accident? –No, Duchamp’s decision to create a template from contour of dropped strings is not a random impulse but a predetermined act. And if the concept is predetermined, the execution does not occur by chance either, at least not randomly, because, in conformity with mechanical physics, forces act upon the material of the string and air pressure to effect results. (Welish, 1988: 66‒71)
2) Contingency. Terminology varies, but wherever “contingency” is manifest, there happens possible–not necessary–events that then affect circumstances. Here, then, are those possible, even unpredicted events that empirically become a determining force or historical actuality: a pandemic does change history; hurricanes devastate lands in consequence of which the population shifts. Many would say that the invention of collage had a similar effect, that of redirecting the praxis in most arts. To accept and integrate an empirical phenomenon or a political act into the consequently altered historical process, then, would be a demonstrable proof of contingency.
3) Indeterminacy. Indeterminacy is a term that in physics that means degrees of freedom within a system–the unsettled position of particles, or, in another context, the tolerances allowable in engineered cantilevering. Analogously, jazz improvisation gives privilege to indeterminancy in this sense; allowing for wide validity within certain limits, as do Allan Kaprow’s rules within which any execution of simple disparate acts are adequate to Happenings and later Activities. (Despite adopting the term indeterminacy from physics for sampling ambient sound and capturing imprecision, Cage, Kaprow’s mentor, nonetheless eschewed musical improvisation as too subjective.)
Thus, speak of forms of chance is to suggest that the spiritualistic and scientistic practice informing not only Mallarmé but also Yeats, Joyce and Stein as they emerged from Symbolist culture, remained plausible and merged with materialist practice; it is also to suggest that imitation of both spiritualist and materialist spacing come to coexist in Guest’s poetry after all. So it is not surprising that her poems construct spaces for both.
Citing Joyce in the epigraph that introduce “Fell, Darkly,” Guest allows this possibility. … what then will happen … if she finally withdraws her regard from the lightening-lit revery of her clairvoyance… instigates themes of intertext which may be called the spacing of the unseen in conjunction with the spacing of the unforeseen. Guest creates a distribution of both, such that in refrain, “folding back,” as she says, these intersect with the spacing of the seen.
Finally, let us make mention of intertextual activity as extant in the interstices of myth and its retelling. We know that the text is a tissue of signs wherein spaces participate in the semiotic play of differences across a signifying surface, as Kristeva would say, and evidence of this may be found throughout Guest’s oeuvre.
The spaced intertext of which we have been speaking is that which not only presupposes the material space of the page but the concatenation therein of temporal states of affairs. If in «Quill, Solitary APPARITION» several time scales are in evidence, this is only characteristic of Guest’s sensitivity to fictive time of all sorts. To cite an early work of virtuosity, “The Knight of the Swan” published in «Moscow Mansions», 1973, is at the intertextual site where there swirl myth, lore, and medieval romance for which the Swan Knight, Lohengrin, son of Parsifal, is most suggestive. Remarkable is the thought in the spacing of the poem, deriving, as it does, not from an allusion to particular romance antecedents but from qualities abstracted from visual as well as verbal patterns that Guest deems apt. Serial events relayed and revisited, verbal density (albeit by way of metrical gait), and textual stamina, inform the poetic constellation. Here, in a deliberative elegance of the lexicon of knight and traveling companion in perhaps the longest poem written by Guest, the quest narrative is suspended even as it is an endurance test; it is an endurance test even as it is a pageant; it is a pageant even as it is a coalescing and dissolving tableau in a tapestry. That we know these forms may of course come from expectations of the literature on medieval romance, but it also is patterned, as our eyes can read the spacing. It is also worth mentioning that repetitions of certain words generative of pattern do not always coincide with significant meaning, but, along with the words “knight” and “swan,” “drawer” and “gingerale” lend emblematic status to passage. The repetition of words, moreover, is indicative of the contingency with which the process of composition incorporates verbal happenstance into the poem.
Guest’s New York School stance deprives Symbolist writing
of symbolic meaning or foundation–or grail, not only because it is
discontinuous but because rigorously disjunct and without explanatory frame.
Over the portal to her poems we read: Forest of signs destabilizes forest of
Guest, Barbara. Moscow Mansions. New York: Viking Compass, 1973.
---. Quill, Solitary APPARITION. Sausalito: the Post-Apollo Press, 1996.
---. Rocks on a Platter: Notes on Literature . Hannover: University Press of New England, 1999.
Kristeva, Julia. “The Bounded Text.” Desire in Language: A Semiotic Approach to Literature and Art. New York: Columbia University Press, 1980. 36‒63.
---. Revolution in Poetic Language. Translated by Margaret Waller. New York: Columbia University Press, 1984.
Mallarmé, Stéphane. Collected Poems. Translated by Henry Weinfield. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994.
Vance, Eugene. From Topic to Tale: Logic and Narrativity in the Midddle Ages. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987.
Welish, Marjorie. “Contratemplates.”
Uncontrollable Beauty: Toward a New Aesthetics. New York, Allworth
Press, 1988. 61‒74.