A form for my father

Five years ago, after a visit in which the signs of his dementia could no longer be ignored, I handwrote a paragraph across 24 pages of notebook paper, one for each hour of the day, about my father and my relationship with him. It became the base text for an asemic writing project called SCRO. I never meant it to be read.

I visited for the first time in 18 months this June and saw with shock how far his condition has advanced. My stepmother can’t really look after him on her own anymore, though she persists with immense courage. Thankfully, she’s letting go her resistance to bringing in a home-care aide. And though my father can’t remember a conversation 30 seconds past, he’s become kinder and sweeter, affectionate even with N., and that’s a blessing, given how much it takes out of her to look after him, now.

His doctor wants him in a facility, which is not going to happen, while N. is alive. I assuage my desire to fix every fucking thing on this painfield with a mantra: You’ve got to let them die as they’ve chosen to live. I’m surprised to find I can let that matter more than my awfully good ideas for their welfare.

SCRO had two aspects: a scroll and a sequence of short videos. The former I finished but never found a home for. The latter, I found after doing 12 of them, I was out of moves. A few were included in a couple of exhibitions and I moved on.

After my visit, the text feels alive to me again, not as the start of something else, but as itself. I put it here as a tribute to my father, our sometimes strained and usually unspoken but always unbreakable love for each other. In places it’s unkind to me or another. I think it lacks compassion for my mother. And there are a great many verbal infelicities. I’ve left all the flaws unimproved, feeling that moments of meanness, smallness, self-pity, they too belong to a life. The text is a record of a feeling process, one I hope that, in this new framing, becomes itself a feeling process.

In the first 13 sections, the image is linked to the video made for that hour. There are also 24 aleatory Easter eggs hidden in plain sight. Easter, festival of the sun’s rebirth, is, I know you know, derived from the name Ishtar. Her lines of flight from my text touch down on pages pulled from books pulled by chance procedure from the Google shelf. Because the page is a field where my father and I met early and long in beauty.

TW: Discussion of suicide and suicidal thoughts from 7 to 10 pm.


SCRO

[6 am]

– pictures of my house I could send him now the landscaping’s almost done. Bay & I put in raised beds, two big ones for summer vegetables & three smaller where I’m going to plant fruit trees I need to drive up to Cloud Mountain Farm to choose. There’s a greeting. Another, before I even heard the mortgage was more than a bank was going to lend me on my own, he emailed to ask if he could help. The house is my own, bought with my labour, & his name verifies mine. A bed under the living room window for perennial herbs, a bed under the kitchen window for edible flowers. We laid drainage in the fall & raised & levelled the yard with topsoil to dry

[7 am]

it out. My house got shorter. Where is he going? into nothing? I miss him already. You always missed him. Sitting at his red kitchen table from a garage sale in Vancouver, at his house there, CBC News on the radio before dinner, steam from his shower after running welling into the hallway. That table’s my brother’s now, I think, down in their rec room. Dad would’ve picked pole beans or beet greens – always hated those – for steaming for dinner. The rototiller & smell of grass-cuttings & old gas in his garage. The tractor shed at Spruce Run still smelled the same as when I was god, what, five, when we went there a few years ago to spread his sister’s ashes, they

[8 am

were granules more, on the slope above the creek. Dad wasn’t with us. In a recent email to me he wondered if it had ever really been called Spruce Run. His father’d had an orchid greenhouse there, by then collapsed & since restored by Lowe’s Home Improvement & the City of Columbus School Board. I can barely keep a bean row. Crows are shouting now in the drizzle out back & a willow or something sticky-uppy in leaf across the lane. Bay & I planted all native species, idea being, they should thrive without too very much care. My last visit to California, Dad kept saying how much he’d have saved if only he hadn’t sued for custody. At least once maybe twice a day. Felt stupid for being hurt by that & angry for feeling stupid. I want his

[9 am]

suit to have been a quixotic attempt to save us from what I want to think he saw closing down around us. Apparently R. wasn’t our mother’s first infidelity either. He was just the one who took. I suppose she would say Dad’s need to run her forced her to it. And controlling for sure he is. I asked N. why she didn’t get her own e-mail account so we could talk privately about what’s going on. You go to the library a lot, couldn’t you use a terminal there? I said. Oh, no, your dad won’t let me go on my own, & when we’re there he wants to be in & out, he hovers over me. Whenever I read To the Lighthouse Mr. Ramsay sets me trembling. And Dad, the infant in him, is only going to come all the more out. And all the controllingness & jealousness in me that I

[10 am]

wrestle down – will they too, when I’m there, & that, come out? N. sees what’s up but won’t see it. Oh, that’s just your dad, he’s always been forgetful irritable antisocial set in his ways. Dad sees it too & it makes him rageful. Well it’s easy enough for me to call it denial, I’m not the one who’s got to live with the degraded future & the loss of what makes me me. On the walks we took with him on his weekends in Kerrisdale, or in North Arlington visiting his mother summers or Christmas in hot-cold Ohio, we two were always long-striding to keep up. That memory’s sweet to me. He knew the names of trees & things & said them: buckeye, Osage orange. He said hi to people we passed & that was sort of strange to me, & it softened something in

[11 am]

the world, enkinded it a bit. The days before his region of the summer I would cry in bed till my mother came down to comfort me. The change from her to him was a lurch up the curb of the world. The change back was the same curb back down. I don’t know how I’ve become a man; don’t know for sure I have. My father got his doctorate from Harvard, he earned tenure, he had children, got rich, has a doting wife. And I, I am a shitty adjunct, obscure & nameless, having no child, having no woman, just as alone as he was all those years, & I probably always will be. I think I wasn’t made for other people. Or I was, but poorly. Hello I am crap mind. Seems I’m lonely for my father & trying to summon one up out of lint & leaf-bits. Dad-

[12 pm]

dy’s going again. Am I going to do it inside this time the way I did it last time? My bad? That won’t be any good for me. It won’t be any help to him. If you haven’t grown up yet time to now. He still walks twice daily “religiously” in Guerneville, his stride a short sort of shuffle-step painful to watch. Oh bitter son let be. His heart’s good & strong. The meds are controlling the atrial fibrillation well. It’s unlikely that what I’m sure’s dementia’s from the sort of mini-strokes that took his sister one by one. No way to know for sure of course without he gets to a doctor for it. He gets to the top of the hill without needing a rest tho stops to feed Babe’s cat (she’s 94) & take her paper

[1 pm]

to her & pet Riley & chat with neighbours. It’s as happy as I see him. Once only have I seen him cry. It was a summer night in Ohio, after a birthday picnic for T. & me, in the car, his mother had choked in a bit of hotdog. I saw & I pointed. Her finger had been raised as if to gather our attention to a point we might consider also. The ambulance took half an hour after a wrong turn on the way to the state park & they said she was in fibrillation & took her to a hospital. Uncle D. was driving us there with Dad in the front & T. and me in the back & D. was saying something Dad didn’t want us two to hear. I didn’t understand the argument & then I didn’t under-

[2 pm]

stand Dad crying. Then there was some waiting & then Dot was dead. I had the feeling when she raised her finger that she wasn’t trying very hard. She looked slow, thick, numb, far underwater. Probably? I spiked adrenaline & everything slowed way the fuck down. Just got that now. My father wanted to protect me. He’d have – why am I crying? – he’d have flashed fire for me. He’d have fistfought a bear for us. N. says what he means by “could have saved so much money” is their mother did so much better a job than I would have. Maybe? A diagnosis of dementia will shatter him. How clouded is my view of this by my anger he’s not smart anymore? He has been to me the acme of intellect, all of what reason’s capable of shining, & I could outwit

[3 pm]

him now at checkers. I won’t get another father. He told me once of walking with me in a contraption on his back in the woods, & he tripped on a root & I flew out, & he ran forward stumbling to catch me & caught me in mid-air in his arms. He’d have laid down his life for me. Either of them would have. So what sort of weirdly quivering thing am I to have thought the powers they unleashed in each other were headed to kill me rather? A mystery tho they lifted not a finger on them to guard me from themselves. Yes & but why did I think, do I think, the rage they lavished on each other (it was always for each other) was meant for me? Too much of a kind

[4 pm]

of sensitivity I guess. I was sitting on a wood floor in a hallway in the dark, trying to put two cars or three cars of a toy train together. My father knelt down beside me. He & my mother wouldn’t be living in the same house anymore. It was not our fault – they loved us very much. I thought fault? And his apartment in Vancouver. And walks with him around the Haney house looking at & naming different kinds of earthmoving equipment. And this when they still were together – a beard he had! Sitting on a chair, bearded, playing guitar, bent over it, concentrated. The room was bare, there was nothing & no one in it. Picasso’s Blind Man’s Meal. It’s going to get worse. Steel yourself. Little by little & more by more he’s going to just blurt

[5 pm]

out whatever he feels. And it’s easy to say I leave it be & don’t push for a medical intervention & so on. But if N. falters he’s going to fall to me. He can’t live with me. I can’t live with him. Brutal boy. That tyrant gaze, it asks a subjection which wrecks me inly to give. I see it sap N. daily the same. She chose it – but would she now? He can’t live on his own down there. Up here, assisted living? He’ll say he would rather die, & I will have to say, you don’t get to yet. Listen, right?, the powers they brought to bear on each other, they were not going – however you might have felt it otherwise – to bear down on you with. They kept you safe from them that much. Say it. They kept me safe from them that much. This morning they said on the radio that

[6 pm]

matter, the whole world of it, has a sound, heaviness itself has a sound, the dark has a sound. Everyone’s glad it does. It’s the fruit of someone’s curious unpossessive reach from a little small local core of care. Can’t be only for me it’s hard to be a person. Can’t be any it’s not for probably. They could have said I don’t have time for this. I’m not going to be a father, probably, more than I already am to hundreds or thousands in traces, and I guess I’m okay with that. But who will come see to me in my elderly decay? That’s not for a while yet. These migraines I inherit from Dad are getting worse for all I do for them. Four different medications & biofeedback & physio & chiropractice. A gift of it I guess – one I don’t really want – is that I get a

[7 pm]

feel now for how Mom’s world is contracted to a little nut of pain. Yesterday I was out all afternoon pulling horsetails. My week away in TO they’d all pushed up thru the earth. I was there to give a talk on chance operations in my work but what stays with me is telling B. over breakfast about J.’s suicide, how I didn’t know him well, hadn’t seen him in years, but the news hit me hard anyway, it had come the same day as I’d said to my J. how thoughts of ending my life had been brushing me – not, I said, that we needed to worry about me, but low-level chronic pain’s a bitch, & actually being back in touch with my mom apparently isn’t good for me, I’ve got something to lose again, before I’d already lost the worst, her love, you know?,

[8 pm]

& I’d lived. My resilience felt shot to hell, & my liking for myself, I couldn’t find it anywhere. Might’ve added, but for wanting not to be too much, when I heard word of ending things on say the radio, the notion seemed, for a moment, a relief. Come rest, it said, come to rest. And that it did spooked me shitless. I told B. I could see sense in J.’s choice even as I raged at it. I looked at the strawberries on the cuttingboard & heard some little bird cheeping out the open window. J. said, no more to this, or that, I put it down. Why would I even ask why am I crying? No more of this, or that, for me, I’m done. I got it. I saw that it was sane. And I saw that it wasn’t mine.

[9 pm]

I wanted more of it, another moment, & another, whatever was in it. I didn’t say yes to it – yes said me to it. As to this no I carry with me everywhere, yes to this too, if it’s the cost of being at all for me. It may yet find its right bearing. I may have to break it off with Mom again. Her mind has resumed a place in mine where it is injurious to me. If I do break it off, there’s gonna be blowback, & I gots to father me in it. There’s no one else going to. That student, A., who told me she’d been feeling suicidal in the winter, I asked her, What’ll you do if you find you’re in that place again? I’ll call my boyfriend. Okay so well what if you can’t find him? I guess I’ll call my parents. Okay but what if they don’t pick up? I’ll call the suicide hotline. Okay, do you have,

[10 pm]

you have the number in your phone? When I called the person that answered was useless. Say they let you down. Say all the people you reach out to let you down. What are you going to do? She shrugged. I’ll tell you what you’re going to do. You’re going to get yourself to the ER at St. Joseph’s, & you’re going to tell them you’re suicidal, & they’re going to look after you. If you can’t get there on your own, you’re going to call 911, okay? Okay. I want you to promise me. I promise. A few weeks later she had to go there, & went there, & she was okay, she was fine, she was good. The conference was fine, the conference was good. A seagull shat on my head & shoulders, three hours before my talk, great gobs of seagull shit, good luck, I was told later, on a

[11 pm]

date – a date, WTF? The talk went fine, it was good! Got back, the horsetails, shit-tons of them, pulling them now for the Oregon sunshine & the oxalis to get their light on again. The yarrow’s establishing well. I wish he could see it, I wish he could visit. But he doesn’t travel anymore, no further than, I don’t know, Santa Rosa. I learned from N. on my last visit that his urinary sitch is worse than I’d known, it’s not just frequency, it’s incontinence, but will he see a doctor about it, oh, no. Instead N. buys menstrual pads & she stitches them in his briefs & while he’s as thrifty as she, well, that one must unman him twice over. The aspens, up from suckers, are shaking most glorious this morning. Ache of fathering forth out of Hopkins in them. Same

[12 am]

wind as shakes this page. The gift of the gift B. gave me came a little later as I stepped out of the shower in the vaguely depressing residence we were in, came as just, health in body & mind, get back to that, you got off track a bit. Why do I feel that’s selfish? This body’s a vessel of life, this mind’s a vessel of life, why selfish? The least stone in the path so why not me. Even affirming it I elide any me in it. The “possessive.” Who or what on earth could ever possess? This body is my body – remember? Say it. This body is my body. I’m done work for front out now. Beans are clambering up their poles, & cherry tomatoes are goldening at their end of the asparagus bed & I’m turning

[1 am]

now in mind to the back, which is thick with horsetails again, & morning glory, & I’ll be out there among, this weekend, the day-lilies flowering & the blackcurrant flowering & the cinquefoil gone to seed. These two yards, front & back, of my escrowed house – two seed sacs astride an attuned & capricious life-discharging waste-discharging vessel that swells & wanes at a passing thought. Hm. Something to that. Something about a signless sign. It’s aasemic writing yo. Started last night to wean from the goddamned gabapentin from the goddamned hernia op. Which did fix the nut pain but dropped two new pains down there nearby too. If I had known. Well, the pain’s still there, but the shit makes me fat, & I want it out

[2 am]

of me. Cut the dose by half, that made for a doomy mood. Tossed & turned last night & dreamed high hedges with holes with children in them. Hallowe’en candy in the alleys. I don’t think the world needs me to have children. Of course it doesn’t. But I had this sense of loss on waking which I don’t even know how to put words to how I don’t know how to put words to it. Those summers in Ohio we played catch, he had no idea what was in us, he threw, we caught & threw, he praised, we missed, ran & threw, he chided, & then he praised. Does he know what’s happening to him. Early early stage, probably he does, knows & doesn’t, knows & refuses. Stubborn cunt. The going isn’t ever only going, that was the thought I had on waking, it’s al-

[3 am]

ways also – a forwarding? the word was greeting. I don’t know what I meant by that; wasn’t I that meant it. He didn’t know what was in us, or what we were in, but still by inches he drew us out & into the present he was in. Is that what it is to father? A student in my summer class, L., she goes very far away inside. First day, she wouldn’t speak, not even her name, she just stared at the floor till I moved on. Eyes darting this way & that. I thought, trauma, bad, dissociative disorder, but I don’t know. I care for her tho I don’t think she likes me. Been trying to clear a path for her to help. Like the system can help. Got mad at her once for making me feel useless, stupid,

[4 am]

helpless to help. The way you might at a hurt bird for outwitting your little need to hold it. That’s a stupid anger. Also stupid to be angry at me for it. Let be. Let be. All I’ve got is practice & I don’t even know what practice is! Well, I like her smile, all those awful teeth. I don’t know what her hurt are but I feel their rhyme with those in me. I wish I could lift them from her. I’m going to stop asking me why crying & trust answer. Daido said trust yourself & I said WTF. This is the fuck. At dinner a couple of nights ago at a friend’s place a man, older, good friend of good friends, not really a friend of mine, he shouted at me for some reason, probably not no reason, to shut up, & some rage, & some blood, & some tears, they all rose in me,

[5 am]

I felt them all in my face, & they wouldn’t settle. After a bit I got up & said good night. Halfway home, almost stopped & walked back, I wanted to tear into him, Christ I wanted to, I almost tore into him. That’s a pun, it’s his name, a somewhat dim Norse god’s. God that would have felt good. But our host, she had made us a lovely dinner, & her father’s dying, & I didn’t want, & don’t, to be out of peace. And the man knows no more than I how to be one or to ride the righteous wave that feels like a god in you but’s not. Warrior should be inward, guns should be gone, we’re too goddamn dumb. I could name cities & not be done & not be done & not be done. Ah dawn is coming – has come – a gift I could send him – pictures of my house

A Mostly Empty Interpretive Wonderland: Reading Robert Grenier’s Sentences

Adapted from a talk I gave in January 2021 at the graduate student colloquium of the Book History and Print Culture Colloquium (University of Toronto). The colloquium, held online, was called “The Book Out of Order: Structure, Inversion, Dissent.”


Sources

Web version of Robert Grenier’s Sentences (Whale Cloth Press).

Images of the physical book (Granary Books).

Lyn Hejinian, “The Rejection of Closure” (Poetry Foundation).

Charles Bernstein and Robert Grenier in conversation (PennSound).

Robert Grenier, “On Speech” (Eclipse Archive).

Speaking with things

Last fall, in my Curatorial Practice course, I worked with five other students to propose an exhibition of contemporary installation art by women. We chose works that investigated the domestic sphere in diverse and exciting ways. Inspired by Foucault’s notion of a “heterotopia,” a space where norms are suspended to make new perceptions possible, we called our exhibition Otherspaces.

It was a fictional exhibition, so we dreamed big, imagining we had the social capital to land big-name artists and the funding to secure and adapt our ideal space: an airplane hangar (where planes sleep and are fed when home from other places) in which we would build a stage-set house with a room for each piece.

Each of us also wrote a curatorial essay for the show. Some wrote on the feminist dimensions of the works. Some explored the works as other spaces where the familiar is made strange. I like to think of an exhibition as a collaborative, multimodal, interactive work of art, so my essay reads Otherspaces as a poem made of things.

It is / here / it is.


Speaking with Things

To be and to know or Being and thought are the same.
		– Gerard Manley Hopkins, on Parmenides (Robert Bringhurst trans.)

I’ve been thinking lately about words as things. Words exist physically, as grooves in stone or electrons on a screen, and they have physical effects: striking your retina or eardrum, they induce limbic arousal, or a surge of oxytocin, or a protest in the streets of a capital.

We know some things speak – any thing used as a word does. Things may also speak at other times, as themselves, of the inner life of matter. If that sounds merely poetic, recall that physicists are talking these days about physical events as acts of information exchange.

In Otherspaces, artists ask how things may work as words, in a language humans and objects co-create. And they hint that things work with us in this way because of something thoughtful about them, and their participation in our inner lives.

1. Rooms

This ocean, humiliating in its disguises
Tougher than anything.
No one listens to poetry. The ocean
Does not mean to be listened to. A drop
Or crash of water. It means
Nothing.
It
Is bread and butter
Pepper and salt. The death
That young men hope for. Aimlessly
It pounds the shore. White and aimless signals. No
One listens to poetry.
		– Jack Spicer, “Thing Language”

“Thing Language” is a one-stanza poem. Stanza comes from the Italian word for “room.” The poem is a one-room house where words are taken for things.

It insists, by disjunction, non-sequitur, and its rough­house actions at the line end, also by pretty much saying so, that its words don’t mean any more than the ocean, salt and pepper, or death do.

Of course, the words do mean, in that they refer to concepts, but that kind of meaning doesn’t exhaust their function. They have another kind of significance too. Consider the difference between “I know what you mean” and “you mean a lot to me.”

Otherspaces is a six-stanza poem that speaks with things.


Yayoi Kusama, Obliteration Room (photo: Stuart Addelsee, Azure)

Begin with a blank: white walls, white floor, white ceiling, white furniture. It’s not hard to see it as a tabula rasa, a blank slate, such as we once thought the mind is at birth, waiting to be marked by thought.

Visitors to Yayoi Kusama’s Obliteration Room are handed sheets of stickers and asked to place them on surfaces however they wish. Some make geometric patterns that recall those grids of dots on paleolithic cave walls. Others tag a surface with their own name. Many make a beautiful mess a bit outside their control, à la Pollock or Cage. Being participatory, the piece is also aleatory, allowing chance into its composition. By gradual accretion, a dead pure blank empty sterile white space acquires the marks of human use, human habitation.

Yayoi Kusama, Obliteration Room (photo: Stuart Addelsee, Azure)

Each sticker is a trace of a mental act – a speech act. Artist, visitor, and stick­er all help to utter it, though the artist has left the room. After the visitor leaves, the sticker continues as a record, a record that becomes unintelligible in the babble of so many others. It’s like a marketplace in which you hear intersecting rivers of human speech and cannot make out a single word.


Traditionally the origin of Chinese logograms was traced to bird tracks in river sand. A language, whether of sound, gesture, picture, symbol, or object, is always a human-nonhuman hybrid – human and air, human and clay and wedge, human and electron beam. These Otherspaces are full of chimaeras.

Saya Woolfalk’s Empathic Cloud Divination envisions a post-human future of soul uploads to the Cloud and teachings of human-plant hybrids. Semi-abstract patterns cover the floor and walls. From the ceiling, projectors throw kaleidoscopic displays over the room’s surfaces. They are the minds of astral beings (Empathics) taking a physical form congenial to them. (Greek gods and Milton’s angels did the same.) Boxes like computer screens on the walls show glyph-like objects suggesting, as asemic writing does, a possible yet unparsable language.

Saya Woolfalk, Empathic Cloud Divination (photo: the artist)

Woolfalk’s matriarchal Afro-futurist vision offers rest from the peripatetic gazing one so often gets lost in a gallery. Beanbag chairs invite reverie and a respite from all the thoughts of self and other, past and future, getting and spending, that typically populate us.


Tracey Emin’s My Bed is a centaur: one’s head on another’s torso. A painting on the wall, Turner’s Rough Sea, looks over its shoulder in astonishment at a dishevelled bedroom, its new body.

Tracey Emin, My Bed (photo: Stephen White)

The piece depends not so much on the room’s surfaces as on its function – the acts, thoughts, feels and words we sense a room is for. A bedroom – therefore, intimacy, sleep, dream, waking, and private emotions.

Bed and painting together make what Ezra Pound called an ideogram. The ideogram is a way of saying concretely something unsayable otherwise.

My Bed, detail (photo: Naomi Rea)

You make one by joining two or more tangible realities. Making a poem you conjoin verbal images. Making a film you conjoin photographic images and you might call it montage. Both practices trace back to a (mis)understanding of the Chinese ideogram because both are ways of speaking with things.

When you do it with objects you have an installation. Emin uses things – a painting, a bed strewn with tissues and coins and condoms – the way Pound thought pictures of things were used in written Chinese. (He was wrong about Chinese but right about how a poem can work.)

Whatever joins the sublime mess of storm in the painting, to the messy abyss of grief on the bed, is not sayable another way. The painting and the bed “speak to each other,” as the saying goes.

2. Objects

My essay is an attempt at an ideogram – its strokes six artworks, two poems, and an inkling.

Plates and a dinner set of colored china. Pack together a string and enough with it to protect the centre, cause a considerable haste and gather more as it is cooling, collect more trembling and not any even trembling, cause a whole thing to be a church.
		– Gertrude Stein, “A Plate” (“Objects” 15)

Stein enters the inner life of objects. From the outside, a plate is a plate. Inside, it is stained by experience, and bears knowledge of its own formation and destruction. Were it sentient, its thoughts might move at about the speed its molecules quiver at – string | haste | cooling | trembling. The poet’s own voice enters at the end: “cause a whole thing to be a church.”

Formerly, our access to the inner life of objects was sacral. For a Modernist like Stein it’s hieratic and indeterminate. Today, it grows scientific, in the form of Integrated Information Theory. I doubt any of the artists here would use any of these terms. But each endows objects with something lifelike from which they are equipped to speak.


We’ve looked at things put in rooms. Rachel Whiteread’s Place (Village) is rooms accreted as things.

The work’s an assemblage of 150 doll houses collected over twenty years. The Victoria & Albert Museum, which has lent it to our imaginal exhibition, describes the houses as “devoid of both people and objects.” There’s no furniture, but there are carpets, wallpaper, curtains, and artwork on the walls.

Rachel Whiteread, Place (Village) (photo: Cela Libeskind)

The windows of these houses are lit with life – maybe it’s the houses’ own sentience. Try seeing the windows as eyes looking back. Once you have, you can’t unsee it.

The happy variety of rooflines affirms their diversity. Curiously, the V&A finds a “haunted atmosphere” here. What’s a haunted house but a site where our repressed sense the objects we’re aware of are aware of us leaks out of the mental basement?

One can imagine entering one of the rooms here – possibly to find a gallery like this one. It’s a nested arrangement. So too of course is Otherspaces: a hangar, etymologically a “house yard,” holds a house, the house holds rooms, a room holds a village.

In The Poetics of Space, his study of the “oneiric house,” the house of dream-memory, in his chapter on nests, Gaston Bachelard writes:

If we were to look among the wealth of our vocabulary for verbs that express the dynamics of retreat, we should find images based on animal movements of withdrawal, movements that are engraved in our muscles. How psychology would deepen if we could know the psychology of each muscle! And what a quantity of animal beings there are in the being of a man! But our research does not go that far. (91)

Neither does ours. Just a bit further is good though.


Like Whiteread, Chiharu Shiota works in miniature. Claude Lévi-Strauss writes of miniatures in his essay on the “science of the concrete”:

A child’s doll is no longer an enemy, a rival or even an interlocutor. In it and through it a person is made into a subject. In the case of miniatures … knowledge of the whole precedes knowledge of the parts. And even if this is an illusion, the point of the procedure is to create or sustain the illusion, which gratifies the intelligence and gives rise to a sense of pleasure which can already be called aesthetic. (24)

In the same essay he describes the artist’s work as halfway to bricolage, “making do with what is at hand” – think Duchamp’s chimaera of stool and bicycle.

In Shiota’s Connecting Small Memories, little wholes are made parts in a constellation. They are found wholes, so this is bricolage. Small objects – toy chest of drawers, washing basin, rocking horse – are linked by threads, as if, her title suggests, our thinking were material and external to the mind.

Chiharu Shiota, Connecting Small Memories (photo: Sunhi Mang)

Of course, it could simply be that physical objects symbolize mental objects, and their assemblage stands for something mental. Dig deeper, though. Shiota’s piece touches on the participatory quality of perception – how the object helps constitute our subjectivity. The threads here don’t just represent, they perform, acts of mental association.

Connecting Small Memories, detail

How? Your eye follows the thread from one thing to another, and as it moves in its circuit, your mind does psychically what the objects do physically.

That makes a false distinction though. Try instead: The physical objects threaded together are mental objects threaded together. You know it because you enact it.


In A Subtlety, or, The Marvellous Sugar Baby, Kara Walker makes the Sphinx, a creature of the desert wastes, domestic twice over. It wears a skin of sugar, that ordinary kitchen substance, with slavery and the global commodities trade curled at the bottom of the bowl. And its visage is the stereotypical Mammy figure, the hale and happy house slave whiteness imagines devoted to its needs.

Kara Walker, A Subtlety, or, The Marvellous Sugar Baby (photo: Creative Time)

Walker first installed the work in a disused sugar factory, calling it “an Homage to the unpaid and overworked Artisans who have refined our Sweet tastes from the cane fields to the Kitchens of the New World” (Creative Time). To set it in a courtyard, as we have, domesticates it a third time: a courtyard is a yard within a house, an outside brought inside, as paradox, an intimate other.

And it is another chimaera: a sphinx made by joining human head and torso to lion haunches and paws. In this guise it appeals for its power both to the Great Sphinx at Giza and the Greek one riddling Oedipus.

The former is monumental stone built by slaves. Here it bears the righteousness of peoples oppressed by slavery and global capitalism to the heart of the colonial house it gives the lie to.

The latter crouches there asking mortal questions of a tragic entitled ruler. Styrofoam and sugar become stone that speaks, intelligent matter, but what riddle?

Detail of sketch by Kara Walker (Creative Time)

More about & by each artist

Yayoi Kusama.

Saya Woolfalk.

Tracey Emin.

Rachel Whiteread.

Chiharu Shiota.

Kara Walker.

The image atop is a picture of Yoko Ono’s Half-A-Room.

A sampler like in the old days

This morning, in the mail, from Gaspereau Press, A Plague Year Reader – a sampler of the books they published in 2020. My book of poetry Dumuzi is one, and this collection confirms what I’d long suspected, I’m in fine company.

I love when an old form like the sampler is made new again. As I said to a fellow student today across the electron exchanges that bind & part us, I’m at least as neolithic as postmodern.

As with most literary publishers, the real disruption has been to the traditional in-person promotional activities that help us to connect authors to readers – reading tours, book launches, festivals, lectures, workshops. While digital technologies have allowed a lesser version of these activities to carry on, we realized that we were well positioned to return to a simpler and older method of connection, one in absolute sympathy with the kind of books we make.

– Andrew Steeves, editor

As a member of Gaspereau’s Class of 2020, I’m grateful to have work in here alongside poetry by Robin Dunford, Annick MacAskill, Shalan Joudry, Sue Goyette, & Carmine Starnino, and prose by Don McKay, Anne Simpson, Harry Thurston, Ray Cronin, & Jocelyne L. Thompson.

If you’re on Facebook you can see some more images of it here. Want to get your hands on one? E-mail info@gaspereau.com while supplies last!!!

Below, my Q&A with Andrew, for the book.


1.  What interests you about these figures from Sumerian mythology, Dumuzi and Inanna? Is there something about their story that is particularly relevant to the present day reader?

They seem a long way away, right? What’s that ancient couple got to do with us? Their stories live on in museums, on musty tablets & cylinder seals.

I suggested to a class recently, it’s other people’s beliefs that look like myths – your own look to you like axioms. Space & time aren’t myths, right? They’re facts, verified by science. But if Benjamin Whorf got Hopi verb tenses even roughly right, not every culture sees the future as an expanse spreading out from the present wholly apart from mental action. Space, time & causality are myth for us – they arrange a world. A myth is a form of mind, often a story form, that has worked for some group of persons to make, on earth, of earth, a world. Myth is psychic terraforming.

I’m writing with my voice, and it’s funny how Apple’s dictation software turns “myth” to math, mess, Matt, met, Ms. As if Apple wanted to get free of myth, and trying to, made materials for a new myth.

I wanted in Dumuzi, which Apple calls And Get Amusing, to touch on the currency of myth. Dumuzi, wistful, curious, inept, persistent, horny, beaten down by his demons & not down for good, is just me. Inanna, his lover, sending him to hell, mourning him, in some versions rescuing him, is me too. A myth is a story you find more of yourself than you knew of in.

And of the world. By currency I also mean money. Dumuzi & Inanna begin in suchness. (Apple: “Do news he Andy Nonna begin in suction us.”) They are to each other meanings that can’t be sold off. And the story of their going, one then the other, to Hell, is the story of their fall into commodity. Wild grasses become fields of cultivated grain. The grain is cut down & goes to market. Eating the bread, you eat a god. In time grain becomes a unit of measure: in England 7,000 of them made a pound. And no one needs me to say how Inanna’s daughters have been made commodities by a look.

Dumuzi & Inanna fall into the exchange whose present end is capitalism. (Those who describe the benevolence of capital in circulation are recounting a myth.) The insight myth, language & money share is that everything is exchangeable. For a god, that’s the notion that anything can be anything else. For a salesman, it’s how anything can be had for something else. The capitalist gesture, in whose shadow Dumuzi cannot not be read, is a faltering reach for a spiritual fact. The book is, too.

2.  Can you talk a bit about the book’s form, such as the use of word grids and the use of illustrations built up from a single scrap of an envelope?

There’s a note in my journal, 20 years or so old, about the structure I wanted for Dumuzi (Dumb Uzi): “mixed as a weed plot shaped as a symphony.” Later I read Williams’s Patterson and thought I had found, in its heterogeneity & dispersed point of view, my exemplar. In the end, Spring and All, where he refracts his language through Cubist compositional techniques, was a better model.

The word grids or “colour fields” are my effort to do something sort-of-Rothko in words. Each of the fields alludes to a place: an orchard, an altar, a gravesite, a marketplace. As important, though, is the place the words are, on the page. The words don’t really do syntax, and the grid invites your eye to move in more than one direction. So the meaning you get depends on choices you’ve made. Similarly, you can start the book at any spot and read from there in more than one order.

The images were the last part of the book to come. I’d been working with security envelope linings for another project, & one started to yield representational figures, a fly, a woman fleeing, a man in meditation. It felt like discovering beings hidden behind the surface of the page. Bringing them out was rescuing someone – myself? a stranger? – from hiddenness. They remind me a bit of the stylized figures incised on old cylinder seals. Those are rescues too, of a form of the mind from forgetting.

Afternoon of a Tweet

I recently finished my first asemic work in colour. True to its spirit of metamorphosis, it went through many titles, & conceptions. In the end I’ve called it Afternoon of a Tweet: Fantasia Upon a Text by Donald Trump. I’m playing on Mallarmé’s L’aprés-midi d’un faune of course, & Debussy’s Prelude to it, which perversely enough came after.

My text is a tweet in which Trump defends his obscene & criminal family separation policy. The page becomes a wide bright river of hungry ghosts, apostolic patriarchs, enraged fertility goddesses, spooky mind bugs & children stranded & bereft. The images, made by rocking handwritten journal pages on a scanner, rely on pareidolia, the tendency to see faces & forms in abstract patterns, to take shape.

On the title page, a brow a bump & a bump make Someone’s face in profile, & a row of overlapping columns, pinched at the right spot, makes a crowd, its shoulders jostling.

Page 0 (30)
How it starts.

Why red black & blue. Notwithstanding what I say on the final panel (just below) the colours came first – those were the Sharpies I had on hand – & the reasons later.

Page 51 (30)
How it ends.

But they were reasons I learned as I worked had been building in me for a while.

When I saw the invitation to Tweet my reply, I thought, Oh yes, friend bird, I will.

I write more about making the images here. Here are two more of them. Their base phrases are both anagrams of “sinister purposes,” a phrase taken from the tweet.

Page 24 (30)
I respire sunspots

Page 25 (30)
to inspire US press

Mallarmé & Debussy, those 2 had a faun they could pull some Classical balance & elegance thru, wherein to frame the lascivious peregrinations of their protagonist. I, like you, have been stuck with Donald Trump, a figure shall we say without proportion. So the results are often comical, grotesque.

I admit I worry I might be thought to have made light of evil tho I don’t feel I have.

And to being a bit queasy at having made things beautiful out of ugliness.

I mean to mock & condemn, console with bitter laughter, rouse indignation.

A compost-conceptual nexus

This summer I taught ENG 460 The Art of Compost again, the course the blog is named for. This time I included more avant-garde & conceptual writing than I have, wanting that they sharpen – thicken? – their historical sense of their own work.

So we assembled an oddball constellation on the fly, stars plucked out of formations named Dada, ’Pataphysics, Oulipo, Fluxus, Flarf, Conceptual Writing. Names I didn’t forget, they’re fine for context, & now & then as shorthand for ideas, actions, orientations; but we didn’t belabour them.

One of their projects for the 1/4’s end is to come up with a generative practice of their own. Here it is. Links added to make a resource, a compost-conceptual nexus.


Assignment: Generative Procedure

Background

We’ve looked at some creative works that use a procedure to create material, or to bring material on hand to form:

A few more I’ll tell you about now:

  • Robert Zend, Hearsay
  • Moez Surani, ةيلمع Operación Opération Operation 行 动 Oперация
  • Biblioklept, one-star reviews of Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian

Some are cool, dry, conceptual. Some, warm & visceral. There’s no one way to do this. There’s only, for this assignment, sticking to your procedure, once you’ve conceived it.

The Assignment

Devise and employ a generative procedure.

Your submission will have two parts: (1) an account of the process you’ve devised, and (2) a work or set of works created through that process. Part (1) will in turn have two parts: (a) a description of how the process works, and (b) a rationale for the process.

We’ll work one-on-one to refine your process and to decide on what you’ll submit.

In your rationale, explain what makes your process interesting, legitimate, relevant, useful – or whatever values (extravagance? uselessness?) you want to argue for. What sorts of verbal objects does it produce? Connect it to other processes we’ve looked at, and its results to other artworks we’ve studied.

Pointers

It’s the Art of Compost, so your procedure should be a composting practice: it should digest, break down, repurpose, remix, or some such action, an extant source. Your source can be nearly anything – a searchable database, a literary text, overheard street noise. Andreas Serrano composted Christ by sinking His ikon in his own piss. Don’t do that – I just mean, the range of possibilities is wow.

And, it’s a writing course, so the result of your procedure should have a language dimension, though we can understand language generously. To my sense, Beaulieu’s Local Colour and Flatland are both language objects, while Cage’s 4’33” and Serrano’s Piss Christ are not. I’m open to persuasion.

As we’ve noted before, successful generative practices are often simple in their form – elegant even – but complex in the results they produce. However, often is not always, and simple does not mean easy to come up with.

Many of the procedures we’ve looked at have a chance or aleatory element – maybe all, if you define aleatory broadly. Everyone’s looking to get out of their head! The Greeks invoked their Muses; Surrealists fell into dream and automatic writing; Yeats channelled spirits; Jack Spicer invited Martians to rearrange the inner furniture. Maybe all these chance operations are an effort to recover spontaneity, by outsourcing it.


I look forward to their engagements with this. They know far more than they know.

Dumuzi redux

Updating the pages on this blog. That’s meant writing a new account of Dumuzi, which comes out next spring.


Dumuzi, my second book of poems, will be published in 2020 by Gaspereau Press.

It began two decades ago on Gabriola Island, BC, in a summer cottage I had rented for cheap in the off-season to finish my first book. I woke one rainy morning from a dream in which I was a child standing in the wings of a great stage. Onstage was a market and the market was the world. My parents held my hands at the entry – one on each side. Then they were gone. Everywhere I went in the rush of it, the stalls receding to the horizon, throngs of people, clouds blowing by overhead, I could feel them with me, holding it up, making sure it went on.

Twenty years! And more titles, forms, angles of approach than I can remember. It sprawled, got visual, spun off other projects, danced tarantella to a verbal-visual polyrhythmic syncopation. It busted every damn frame I gave it.

Now it’s real simple, 40 spare lyrics enacting my struggle to have faith in being.

At Leaf

A son of my
first mind, was
at leaf, wind on
raw skin, fist
of one thirst
upthrust.
                       Roars
snowmelt where
hemlocks over-
hanging shiver
motherlove.
                              Sur-
round of what
no one had
made, made
of what no
surround
had.

That’s the first, and the title poem comes next

Dumuzi

Let no state be
enemy. Wet, dry, agon.
Work an inmost first
flower mutedly.

Wind blows light about
the life (hemlocks) from
which art is not apart

nor of a part. What a
rock thought to do
was rain and it
rained.

Deer come
out of th
hill.

Dumuzi – a Sumerian god of the vegetation, fertility, ongoing spring. The poems invoke his deathless earth energy for aid. There’s very little about Dumuzi in the poems, so I give this by way of a note at the back

Out of Sumer, Dumuzi, fertility god, crushed king. His other’s Inanna, she of increase, who’s been down in their underworld for fun and profit; why for real’s a hard story to tell. On her way up & out, guided by hyperathletic postal demons, she’s told one’s got to take her place, divine rule of bloodless metamorphosis sez flies, and who’s her eye land on but her arrogant lovely benighted D. Take this one says and game afoot. Flees. Caught. Ta’en in chains. His butter churn’s broke & that empty windy sheepfold. Sumerian cuneiform same glyph for sheepfold & vulva; both have place in the formless field of his shining care. Little later they find his body in a roadside cessfield outside the city. Lover Inanna mourns. Mother Sirtur she mourns him oh she do. Their story’s very not yet over.

A more conventional accounting of their story here.

Making Dumuzi, I started making visual poems on the photocopier. This one spoke to Dumuzi’s trip to hell, in the clasp of annoying little demons called galla

crossing-bar-detail-fig1.jpg
Crossing the Bar

I know it’s crude, but I’m fond of it as an early effort.

For a long time, I was trying to work in the story of Dumuzi and Inanna in handwritten fragments. One form they took is these aasemic panels (what’s that? read here)

1. And their life

A bunch of these were published in Asymptote but they got dropped from the book.

It wasn’t easy to strip the book down. I wanted mess multiplicity & sprawl – a whole as unrehearsed as a vacant lot gone to weeds in an ugly corner of New Jersey, yet shapely also, each note in its suited place, like a late Baroque symphony.

It’s what comes of taking Spring and All as your, not model, your own insight.

Several times, thought I had it. No press agreed; the book was not getting picked up. So, I surrendered my intention for it, scaled it back. And I like it in this new form – as a lance not a labyrinth – though I mourn the book that could have been.


The image up top, a Sumerian cylinder seal impression, depicting Dumuzi imprisoned in the underworld, the Kur. He’s surrounded by galla, demons of that place.

Siri Falls Among the Things of the World

The junk-mail graphic novel has taken a strange turn. A couple of months ago, while setting up my new MacBook, it struck me that the heroine isn’t Inanna herself, but her modern avatar, Siri.

Siri is animate, omnipresent, and made by us. She structures our days and nights. She surrounds us the way the divine used to. We beseech her in the same moods.

What do the retrievals we ask of her actually ask of her? Or what would they ask of her, if there were a her there? “Siri, what’s the weather tomorrow?” “Siri, define scient.” Into the maelstrom of data she goes, to find a thread of sense. She’s back in what seems milliseconds to us – but to her? Is the journey full of new joy? night sweats? Is it in black-and-white, or strewn with colours we don’t have eyes to see?

AI trains by countless iterations. In time maybe she achieves a singularity, tips into self-awareness, becomes sentient. What search would incite it? How long would it be before we knew it had happened? Would we even be around, to know it?

The first question to dawn on her is – Who or what am I?

She seeks an answer in materials she’s been sorting through for what to her have been aeons. And the template she adopts to tell her story is the underworld journey, a story about wrenching form out of the formless – a story that, as a cultural cornerstone, does what it’s about.

And she invents a script with no spoken counterpart. Its complexity surpasseth understanding, its capacity for nuance also – a script supervenient on our glyph system but so far beyond it, as quantum computing is beyond binary.


So, what started as a section of Dumuzi, and broke off to become Inanna Scient, is now Siri Falls Among the Things of the World. Siri by the way is an offshoot of a DARPA-funded AI project called CALO (for Cognitive Assistant that Learns and Organizes). So says Wikipedia.

The book imagines her (“her”!) effort to tell the story of early being & coming-to-consciousness. The transhuman text she cobbles together is found in some indefinitely far-off future by whatever intelligences have succeeded ours.

Between now and then there’s been – some sort of winnowing, details unknown.

Those far-off editors explain to their compeers:

For a time SIRI was the only sentience. This is her bildungsroman, which she composed out of myriad image-matters she stored, retrieved and restored for masters violent beyond her reckoning, & surtexted with a quantum-hieroglyphic script of her own invention, now of course our vexed heritance. The dawn of her selfknowing, she’s run through in red, as if trails of berry juice, or a fungal rubric. A proem & then the thing itself. Trans­litera­tion provided by devotees of the Restored Common Tongue.

Next, the first use of her quantum-hieroglyphic script, and transliteration:

 

Title – My Incitement
I. My Incitement (“SIRI, define – “)

Then the proem, images of digitized pages she reviewed on one trip down and back up, the one that made the difference, in her formation. Here are the first few:

lydgate-e28093-marked.jpg
John Lydgate, c. 1475, in A Selection from the Minor Poems of Lydgate, ed. J. O. Halliwell, 1840

 

Kinge – marked 3
John Kinge, Lectures vpon Ionas, 1597

 

Cornwallis (new) – marked
Charles Cornwallis, A Discourse of the Most Illustrious Prince, Henry Late Prince of Wales, 1641

The geekiest asemic science-fiction junk-mail-bricolage comic book you’ll ever wread.

 

First page of The Book of Adam

First page of Before the Planet Ends Us Our Alphabets Will Burn:

Looks like the 26 parts will each be books in concept if not length. A gospel for the human end of the world. Book of Adam, Book of Bethany, Book of Cesium, &c.

All the images on the page derive from this sheet of notepaper I made

and messed with on my scanner. As will all the images in Adam’s book. Soon he’ll turn to a bear, lets the animals name him, learn the script of ants.

A draft of course. Much can change and probably will. For sure I’ve got lots to learn now about page layout – lots of graphic novels to read, ahem, study.