Aaron Shurin


©1990 Aaron Shurin
First Published by Sun & Moon Press
6148 Wilshire Boulevard, Gertrude Stein Plaza
Los Angeles, CA 90048

This essay was first delivered as a talk at Painted Bride, Philadelphia, June 1989.

I'm interested in the utilization of both poetic and narrative tensions: the flagrant surfaces of lyric, the sweet dream of storied events, the terror of ellipsis, the audacity of dislocation, the irreversible solidity of the past tense, the incarnate lure of pronouns, the refractability of pronouns, the simultaneity of times, the weights and balances of sentences. I'm interested in lyric's authenticity of demonstration and narrative's drama of integration; lyric, whose operation is display, and narrative, whose method is seduction. I describe a set of binary terms across which I see writing passing an exchange of values, and it becomes a multiple texture/text—writing in just those created tensions between surface vocalic tangibility and referential transparency; between theme and emptiness, measure and interruption, the eternal present and past of memory/future of dream; all present, all heightened, operational. Such conflated writing would be worthy of Barthes's definition of the text: "not a coexistence of meanings but a passage, an overcrossing; thus it answers not to an interpretation, even a liberal one, but to an explosion, a dissemination." 1 One seeks to be out of order, to shiver out of subjectivity, to shake off the mask of the material and to shimmy in its arms, to finally retreat from logic and advance by radial maneuvers, gathering meaning. "To break the sentence," says Rachel Blau DuPlessis—and here the sentence carries its overtone of imprisonment without parole—

rejects not grammar especially, but rhythm, pace, flow, expression: the structuring of the female voice by the male voice, female tone and manner by male expectations, female writing by male emphasis, female writing by existing conventions of gender—in short, any way in which dominant structures shape muted ones. 2

One looks for alternate methods to proceed, to use and subvert the codes at hand: stanza, line break, character, plot, point of view.

In "The New Sentence," Ron Silliman suggests ways in which the prose poem has used combined and measured sentences to interiorize poetic structure, foregrounding language operations and surface values in a writing mode—prose—whose usual form is the syllogism, building structures of projection and depth. "The torquing which is normally triggered by linebreaks," he points out, "the function of which is to enhance ambiguity and polysemy, has now moved into the grammar of the sentence." 3 The paragraph as a unit of quantity and the sentence as a unit of measure, altered sentence structure, controlled and limited integration: these devices begin to conflate the values of poetry with those of prose. Other writers have pursued not just prose but narrative prose, and foregrounded narrative codes to awaken a reader's attention to process as well as result. In his novel, Jack the Modernist, Robert Glück uses metaphorical and metonymic litanies side by side, showing off the writing as writing as he demonstrates that the devices are not mutually exclusive.

I grab his cock, unpromising, and he says in mock bewilderment, "What's that?" As it hardens I answer for him, "It's my appendicitis, my inchworm, my slug, my yardstick, my viola da gamba, my World Trade Center, my banana, my statutory rape, my late string quartet, my garden god, my minaret, my magnum opus, my datebook, my hornet, my Giacometti, my West Side Story, my lance, my cannon, my nose-job, my hot dog, my little sparrow, my worm on the sidewalk after a storm, my candle, my Bic, my unicorn, my drawbridge, my white whale… 4

and on for another sixty substitutions, "my cyclops … my Venus of Willendorf … my Dark Tower." Four pages later the elaborative metonymic process of prose takes over from the comparative metaphorical process of poetry.

My troubles were too numerous to consider all at once, their sheer quantity defeated me. My mom would say, "Write a list, get a handle on your problems, deprive them of their active ingredient, time." So I found a clean page in my yellow legal tablet … Nuclear catastrophe, destitution, famine, additives, melanomas, losing face, U.S. involvement in El Salvador and Nicaragua, Puerto Rico, South Korea, Chile, Lebanon and Argentina, war in the Middle East, genocide of Guatemalan Indians and extermination of the native peoples of Brazil, Philippines, Australia, answering the telephone … toxic waste, snipers, wrinkles, cult murderers, my car … 5

Though these are both descriptive processes, they are not transparent; the reader is aware of being in a list, enjoys the ingenuity of elaboration and substitution, is held to the surface of the writing at the same time she is integrating the lists into the larger structures of the story. Speaking of description, Alexander Gelley writes,

This kind of stillness in the narrative may be likened to islands of repose for the reader, moments of collection. The hold that the level of plot, speech, and action exercises on him is loosened. His attention may wander, but it may also adjust to a changed mode of apprehension. I am suggesting that the more circumstantial the description and the more separate from the narrative in which it is embedded, the greater will be the reader's part, and the more he will be forced to assume a stance for which the narrative proper offers little support…. When the familiar codes of narrative are blocked or diverted, reading/writing becomes problematic, and the subject of/in the narrative shifts from the characters or the author to the reader…. 6

This problematization forces the reader to ask questions, to become active in the role of reader, and Glück reinforces this tendency by confronting the reader directly in his stories, "You'll understand my fear," he says, "because television has trained us to understand the fear of a running man;" and, "I can only give this story, which is the same as sitting with my back to you;" and, "Tell me, given the options, where would your anger have taken you—where has it taken you?" By confronting the reader, Glück not only breaks the window of his narrative but creates and engages an audience, creates a social registration for his writing by direct address, by luring the "real" time of the reader into the "dream" time of his story. The foregrounding of devices and codes does not neutralize them, they are too full of historical determination, but it can ritualize them, or expose their ritualization; reveal them not as necessities but constructions—open to change.

Writing might use narrativity without succumbing to its hegemonic orders of linear development, unity of time/tense—and apart from the modernist reconstructing modes of memory and dream. A prose whose paragraphic groupings themselves might be based on measure, whose higher integrations might be thematic or associational rather than developmental. "How tenacious is our happiness!" says Kevin Killian in Shy. "Unlike narrative, it invents and eludes itself from moment to moment; it lacks conventions; its shape has no outline, its formal properties those of the cloud—numinous, portentous, hungry…." 7 And then goes on to produce a narrative with properties of the cloud, numinous and hungry, where characters search for themselves alongside the writer as a character himself, where persons encounter each other but never stoop so low as to engage in a plot.

The ceiling was gray and smooth as the beach that Gunther Fielder lived by. Flat, and peaceful, the way that "now" is without a past or future to rock it up any. He could focus on the gray and try to hypnotize himself, closer towards death. "Do it," he demanded.
"My name is Harry Van," he said. It sounded so false. He said it over and over, didn't ring true somehow. Like somebody else who you couldn't remember. Well try again, something new.
"I'm David Bowie," he said, experimenting. "I have come to earth a space invader, hot tramp, I love you so." Oh that was so suffragette, trying to "be" a star.
He'd start again. "Hi, my name is Mark the dead boy," he said with great difficulty.
"Are you Kevin Killian," he replied. "Can I help you?" Just like the Hot Line!
These voices came out of his mouth from nowhere, between heaven and earth, this conversation developing like a photograph pulled from its tray full of crystal chemicals. Emergent. 8

These voices attack the proposition that characters or author must be unified presences, and suggest that self itself may not be locatable along such a monochromatic line.

He is telling you now a story about narrativity, he is telling her story. She finds the story as she looks at each other: so many faces. She is crossing gender from the start, she wants you to know she is Elizabeth Taylor—and has the Halloween photos to prove it. He is a boy playing Puck in a high school production of A Midsummer Night's Dream wearing ballet slippers forever. "I have died and am in a novel and was a lyric poet, certainly, who attracted crowds to mountaintops." 9 I come after Robert Duncan but before Norma Cole. My name is "Broiling-Days-In-A-Little-Patch-Of-Shade." "For better or worse," says Flaubert,

it is a delicious thing to write, to be no longer yourself but to move in an entire universe of your own creating. Today, for instance, as man and woman, both lover and mistress, I rode in a forest on an autumn afternoon under the yellow leaves, and I was also the horses, the leaves, the wind, the words my people uttered, even the red sun that made them almost close their love-drowned eyes. 10

"Voice," "Person," "Point of View"—always singular—propose a unified filter through which events may be organized, and as filters screen properties, screen out toxins and tannins and pieces too big to fit neatly. But pluralities are possible. "I see only from one point of view," says Lacan, "but in my existence I am looked at from all sides." 11 Pronouns are known as shifters because they are by nature unstable linguistic units, referring not to people but to moving circumstances of speech and audition, visibility and perception. As such they are fictional opportunities; unlike names they permit a character to be subject and object, to ride the Wheel of Person, speak and be spoken of with equal weight, inhabit simultaneity. Here is a poem from Alice Notley's sequence, "Congratulating Wedge":

No I wouldn't know why anyone would
want to write like that. I should never
have had to do it. We were used to this
other thing we always know like when we're
here. And you have this clear head & you're
seeing things & there they are. You don't
notice they're spelled. That's how you
know you're alive. I never saw you
looking like a dictionary definition & if I
did I wouldn't tell nobody. People
aren't like that. They say, Hey
asshole motherfucker turn that radio
off! But the sun's playing on it! But
it ain't real, you dumb package!
I recognize every package the way it
comes. Now I'm mixed up. But I
always wanted to be a package, person
thinks. Do they? Or, I gotta de-
fine this package, me. Or, God if only
I was a package but I'm not. 12

What are people like and what method correctly presents/represents them; from what angles are they constructed and who construes the angles into voice? In her mind as "I," out of her mind as "she," confronting or confronted by "you"; conspiratorially social and partial as "we"; part of one another, occasionally indistinct, certainly indiscreet, we are and we are not separate people. "My premise, in general and in writing," says Leslie Scalapino, "is that I do not think there is a man, or woman, or society, social construction; though it is there. It is not there." 13 I have been marginalized as a poet, homosexual, counterculture protester, drug taker, transvestite and Jew; I am as interested in boundaries for what lies outside them as in. I would like to drop my "characters" onto the sharpened point of a gemstone, so that the radial fractures would illuminate a comprehensive pluralistic image.

Syntax is the plot of the sentence, a systematic ordering of person and event, of who does what to whom and when and to what end. Encoded in its structure are a variety of fixed agreements that always end in a point (.) Who will speak for beside-the-point? Nouns and verbs must have parallel numbers, pronouns and verbs parallel persons; tenses must agree to produce time that resembles progression. Business conveniences that make of stories little prisons of discrete power relations with seemingly invisible walls. I am not talking about referentiality vs. non-referentiality; I'm talking about how narrative referentiality might be better served. Gender is foregrounded and elementalized, digressions are trivialized, passive constructions frowned upon. As Sara Schulman points out, try to tell a lesbian story without names: she came into a room, she looked at her, she looked at her, she said—and aside from homophobia, what terrors would such unlocations unleash? Normative pronoun usage subjects self and other to power/dominance models of unity and authority, of he over she and it beneath them. For pure syntax there is Charley Shively's reduction of the phallocentric rule: "the subject fucks the object." 14

Here is Leslie Scalapino writing:

The young person living there, having an intense tortured as if tearing in half pain in the middle, waking lying asleep, though this had only occurred this one time. The day and night being free of the one person, who hadn't had this tortured sharp pain as if to tear her in half except this one time, the man lying waking staying gently with her during it through the soft darkness and then ending in the warm balmy day with the people around who go down the street. 15

Passive participial constructions which don't inhabit time, genderless and then confusing gender assignations, unlocated relative pronouns, erratic time shifts without one simple present tense: an amalgam of person and event that keeps elements suspended and active, "an explosion, a dissemination" of meaning. "His mouth are everywhere," I wrote erotically in "Honor Roll," insisting that the plural verb was truer to the polyvalence of desire.

And I have neither a coherent story to tell nor can I cop a coherent attitude to give my voice a characteristic singularity. I was born in sleep and raised in sleep and wake up to find myself sleepwalking. The figures I know all have shadows; some figures are smaller than their shadows. In the first photo I am a soft blasted thing, mouth open tongue hanging, blotto. Six weeks premature, I was still "in here" out there. The world was unformed, coalescent. His story is the story of an intuited world, a story where digressions may be the point, where ellipsis is an accurate representation of what there is.

This world in its order decomposes into air, simultaneously present and absent. A writing, then, of enmeshed simultaneities, which gives sufficient weight to its constituent presences so that they verge upon each other. The material relations of the Unknown. "The stuff of the psyche," says Herakleitos, "is a smoke-like substance of finest particles, that give rise to all other things…. it is constantly in motion: only movement can know movement." 16 His story pulls the reader down from the surface of language not to rest but to ride back and forth between the manifest and imaginary worlds, among selves. "I wanted to write a story," he begins, "to talk about the outside world and escape my projections, but the outside world could not escape from my projections. I wanted to write not 'my' story but 'theirs'; I wanted to write about evil." He looks at his fingers to escape your accusations; a sunbeam deconstructs him into motes. He is happy dissolved there, and wants to write from such dissolutions, melting into the grain of his lover's nipples. He has no lover; he has entered an argument about narrative and political ruination. "Tell me your story," he asks, and you do.

Here in this dialogue writing relies less on information, as Walter Benjamin shows, than on the moral power of interpretation, "to keep a story free from explanation." It is left up to the reader to "interpret things the way he understands them, and thus narrative achieves an amplitude that information lacks." 17 Here a fabricated house open to the wind is both a shelter and a sharpener of the wind's bite, a house of shadows and a moving shadow that resembles a house. Narrativity, the action not the thing, a happening semblance that is and is not a story, a gift given and taken away so that one must finally stand fulfilled by transgression. Narrativity, a process of integration not linear but aggregate, circular, partial—and so, complete.

Works Cited

1 Barthes, Roland, Image - Music - Text, Hill and Wang, 1977, p. 159.

2 DuPlessis, Rachel Blau, Writing beyond the Ending, Indiana University Press, 1985, p. 32.

3 Silliman, Ron, "The New Sentence," in Talks, Hills 6/7, 1980, p. 214.

4 Glück, Robert, Jack The Modernist, Gay Presses of New York, 1985, p. 27.

5 ibid., p.32.

6 Gelley, Alexander, Narrative Crossings, The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1987, p. 14.

7 Killian, Kevin, Shy, The Crossing Press, 1989, p. 103.

8 ibid., p. 161.

9 Palmer, Michael, Sun, North Point Press, 1989, p. 83.

10 Flaubert, Gustave, The Letters of Gustave Flaubert, 1830-1857, The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1979, p. 203.

11 Gelley, op. cit., p. 27.

12 Notley, Alice, Margaret & Dusty, Coffee House Press, 1985, p. 68.

13 Scalapino, Leslie, in correspondence, 1989.

14 Shively, Charley, The Advocate, #342,
May 13, 1982, p. 24.

15 Scalapino, Leslie, The Return of Painting, manuscript.

16 Herakleitos, Herakleitos and Diogenes, trans. Davenport, Grey Fox Press, 1976, p. 18.

17 Benjamin Walter, Illuminations, Schocken Books, 1969, p. 89.


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