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Listening to Reading


How does one read an aeolotropic series? How does one keep track of a story whose events keep shifting in relation to one another, depending on the position of the fictional "I" who observes those events, which themselves are changed because "I" moves, in space or time, as when she sees taxis lined in a fan, then filing one by one to the curb to pick up people waiting to be driven off to whatever part of the city they may be bound for: I'm in the background in the sense that I came out of a train station and taxis are in the foreground? How does one make narrative sense of a network of insistently repeating terms -- area, car, buildings, mechanical, immature, sailor, creamed, old, aging, paradise, foreground, urinate, depressed, inactive, the floating world, intercourse, vicinity, bourgeois, tyrranized, disproportionate -- terms that keep coming back, unexpectedly, identifiably the same yet somehow also realigned by each new context, like chord changes in a piece of music, as if this narrator were obsessed with certain key events but at the same time unable to 'explain' the exact source and meaning of her obsessions?

Leslie Scalapino's that they were at the beach invites questions such as these, questions aimed at investigating as closely as may be possible the scale of thought as it occurs in shifting perceptions of events. Her awareness is as edgy as Dickinson's, the manner of her attention as rigorous, only slightly less urgently keyed, as Stein's, and perhaps more compelling for that reason. The book's subtitle, aeolotropic series, suggests its concern with Heisenberg's principle of uncertainty, that perception alters the phenomenon perceived, that thinking changes what is thought about. Here, for instance, when the first person narrator's position relative to what she observes -- which isn't quite the same as what's referred to in literary criticism as 'point of view' -- when her position changes what she observes and/or thinks changes too.

In an essay on Japanese poetic diaries as a fictional mode, Scalapino's account of the narrative method in Lady Murasaki's The Tale of Genji serves as a description of her own work:

Multiple resemblances of people and of events within a set, or widely separated from each other in narrative -- and sets which occupy an extended time, opening up and unfolding so that it's the whole world in which things and people move slowly -- create the present.2

In this light, to read through that they were at the beach is to engage fully the present tense, like tracking your own experience when you take a long walk -- you look and think and look and think and look and think. And each time the world is different, and also the same.

The point then is to enact the shifts in this world in these words, by taking them up and making one's own connections. For the writer's thoughts aren't repeated in the reader's mind when we read her words, but rather engage us with our own thoughts.

Therefore my thought, and events which are outside me -- and really are me -- and the world, are the same. Very painful events may seem to have longer reverberations. Which cause their own reordering. This implies a syntax which in being read would require that the reader go through the process of its thought, have that thought again -- and it's therefore an act, one which has not occurred before. A thought of the writer isn't going to get duplicated.3

So that when Scalapino shifts her perspective from point to point, fragmenting the story being told into its own 'reordering,' her shift aren't necessarily the reader's shifts. My work as reader is to rearticulate the syntax of thought and perception that produced it.

The repetitions are as insistent as the writer's raw material -- a ship coming in, dock workers, the man on the corner, taxis in the foreground. Scalapino finds an order in this material by arranging it, as if she had set out at random tableaux from the story that was her life but found that she kept returning to certain events she found central, and so followed them: creamed, inactive, depressed, old, aging. The result extends what the Cubists did in painting, where the juxtaposition of multiple views creates a simultaneity of experiences in time of events that couldn't 'normally' be experienced that way. I sense that the writer is telling me a 'coherent' story, but that the parts have been arranged into a kind of self-reflecting mosaic, almost as if this wore my life.

The connection to Japanese poetic diaries is that there the narrative 'voice' looks back years into her past, speaking of it as a present which has a future not coincident with the actual future (i.e. present) that came to be, and different yet also a part of the past and even more distant past. In Scalapino's work present and past are univalent, and change also, depending on the context in which they are viewed. Hence aeolotropic, in that the different points on the graph of her life appear differently from where she sees them.

In order best to explain the physics of what takes place in that they were at the beach, I want to look closely at a couple of representative passages from part one, buildings are at the far end, which can stand for the whole. Here is the opening of that section:

The man taking me in the car, whom I hadn't met before, knew people I'd merely observed -- they were in a different place.

Going fast, I thought of them. It was hot and here was an area where one didn't go anywhere -- a setting that is run-down -- and no one is walking. We see a man on the corner. The man in the car speeding up and going through redlights stopped there -- we were still in the rundown area -- where the person on the corner is the man who sees him beginning to drive again.

This starts out as straightforward narrative -- first person, past tense (shifting from the present tense of its title , building are . . .), the complex sentence interrupted by a dash after which the perception of people doubles back, as if in the next instant rethinking it changes the fact most urgently in need of this report: -- they were in a different place (different, therefore I hadn't met them? place toward which I was being driven?). With no mark of punctuation, and no words following until, across the white space of a skipped line the new sentence, clearly continuous of the thread left off (going fast, I thought of them), picks up the story enroute to somewhere, what happens next forces us to adjust our sense of what has just now happened, as if somehow having arrived in this setting that is rundown becomes so powerful a fact that the telling of it must at once shift from past to present tense. One man on the corner, one man in the car speeding up, running red lights, stopped there. At this point, past tense but immediately flipping back to present, the narrator stops herself, interrupts her story to make sure we know that she and the driver were still in the rundown area -- where the person on the corner is, before the two of them drive on.

Aside from the shifting back and forth of verb tense, all but unnoticed and all the more significant because of that, these opening paragraphs present no real surprises. The flatness of tone and diction, characterized by general nouns (The man, the car, people, an area) and verbs (taking,knew,observed,going,speeding,stopped, plus seven instances of the verb to be), suggests something about the "I" and her story -- a certain quality of detachment from the events told, perhaps, or, more likely, a recollecting and representing of those events in such a way as to withhold the emotional weight of what is perceived, thereby inviting us to discover it ourselves, as if for the first time. To negotiate these streets in this car requires eyes and ears alert, reader fully awake.

Look, for instance, at what happens in the next set of paragraphs:

I work, yet seeing a delivery driver in the sweltering weather I had the sense that he'd come to an area that is vacant. Like a dock or pier, it didn't have any shade or people -- and therefore the duties of the driver are undefined, in terms of the work he's doing.

Yet there's a sense of people -- not being there, the area in the sun being remote -- but being in an industrial area anyway in sports cars, or ordinary cars.

The others in an industrial park, and the driver of the van isolated. The same apparently random shifting of tense carries the story forward, and details such as dock or pier, industrial park, sports car, and van begin to fill in bits of the story. Its opening assertion that I work doesn't seem to follow immediately from what precedes it, but references in the next part of the sentence to a driver, sweltering weather, and an area that is vacant pick up discrete threads from before, identifying this as the same "I" who was being driven in a car. That is reassuring, no doubt, but hardly remarkable. What is remarkable, but hardly noticed is that the structural train of thought implied by such syntactic flags as "yet," "but" and "therefore" keep getting off the track. What in the world does the contrary-to-factness implicit in I work, yet . . . have to do with one's sense that a particular driver has come (arrived?) at a vacant area? Why does it follow that if such a place had no shade or people, the duties of the driver are undefined? And if his work is unspecified because there aren't people, how then are there people, not...there...but in an industrial area anyway? Questions like these don't get asked as we read these paragraphs, not because they are not pertinent but because we get caught up in the increasingly discernable outlines of the situation being sketched in (the rundown area becomes an industrial park) and the ideational resonance of certain of the terms used to sketch it (vacant, undefined, not being there, remote, isolated). We feel ourselves getting our bearings in this empty, open space (buildings are at the far end) even and only as we keep losing the way, and finding we have to find it again.

Events are also rearranged locally, within the sentence, where the meaning of a word determined in one syntactic setting must be redetermined as the syntax unfolds. When we read And others around in an area where there are lots of land, a few/ people out, for example, we first understand lots as "many," to be followed after the preposition by some plural noun (cars, buildings, people). The singular land, however, forces us to rethink lots, no longer now an adjective meaning the opposite of "few" but a plural noun, "lots," distinct portions of a piece of land. No sooner set, this alternate reading of lots must be rethought because of the next phrase, a few people out, where the adjective few works retroactively upon lots, causing it once again to take on the color of its surrounding, in this case as the opposite of few, lots meaning "many." A central concern of the entire work, similar chameleon-like changes4 of terms in context both of the sentence and the events it discloses take place across a wider gap in the first and last sentences of this same paragraph: There's the person whom I dislike to the extent that it is an end in it-/ self . . . . Buildings are at the/ far end, in back of the station. End here operates first abstractly, as part of the idiomatic phrase "an end in itself," where it signifies "aim" or "purpose," and then with reference to objects in an actual space, in this case buildings at a great distance. Notice also that extent, which suggests dimension and space, operates implicitly in this last sentence even though it doesn't appear there, and that the idea of opposition between two people suggested in the first sentence by the phrase the person whom I dislike implies a spatial polarity whose distance is made concrete in the layout of buildings behind a station in the last sentence.

To read buildings are at the far end is like going to places we've been to (in a dream?) and so recognize, in that we've seen the same cars and buildings and people before, by a route along which what goes on seems strangely removed, immobile. The "I" of this journey, who as guide becomes each reader's alter ego, keeps making a point of identifying herself in relation to what or who is around her. It's as if by locating the position of other points in the graph, her own position may also become fixed, herself defined, even as that 'self' ('I' speaking) evaporates into the next thing confronted:

Kids on bicycles are still in an area ahead of me -- I'm walking. I had a sense of pain until getting up to them being between them and the spot where the buildings are.

The geometry is Euclidean, with the x, y and z axes serving as a structure in which to piece together fragments in a life whose coherence must be redefined from moment to moment, because the fourth dimension --time, that sequence of moments -- permits a scrambling both of the events told and the telling of them.

What seems to be the randomly reiterative structure of its fiction has the effect of making Scalapino's work more like life than life itself, whose predictability and hence coherence is often, barring accident, all too obvious . Here, however, the mosaic of thoughts and perceptions makes itself present in a way that includes the constant possibility of randomness together with a literal obsession for certain recurring events. Everything keeps getting repeated -- the car, the man, the building , the industrial park, the kids -- yet context determines everything, and in a changed context no phenomenon can be ever quite the same. Aeolotropism changes events in this world not because this world is in motion but because the perceiver is alive, moving through space and time, and wherever she looks and thinks things will have jumped. And so then come to rest, each paragraph like a snapshot of a still life whose only apparently haphazard arrangement of objects insists that the person who observes them -- speaker/reader -- be included:

A ship (so it's mechanical) is behind the sailor, who's older than I -- him not being old though -- there isn't action. In front of that I'm by the person who's lying near the buildings. People older than I but not old walking in front of me, the person who's the beggar would just be seen and not act.

And have been inactive actually in life. Having really occurred.

Passages in italics are from that they were at the beach -- aeolotropic series (North Point Press, 1985).

* * *


Sometimes words set off as if to float in the white space that constitutes a page will come to have a power that transforms them, that gives to apparently ordinary statements as of things as they are in the world a resonance in which words and things seem to intersect, almost to touch. Language then becomes concrete, the sound of its syllables and the silences between them moving like weights and counters in the ear's body, making attention all that counts. And then too the reader becomes a listener, if not the book itself, as to a written score performed 'out loud,' rhythmic emphasis where the accents fall, cutting so to speak the literal fabric of a page bound with others like it between the covers of the book. It will be as if the words were set down in order to disappear -- Scalapino's connection with Buddhism figures here, things at once 'solid' and 'void' -- leaving no trace but meaning, what might have been, for the reader their perfect and complete potential: breathing in, breathing out, words fully material in being able to occupy, and fill, discrete space.

In way, composed of two serial works, the later floating series (walking by, bum series, The floating series, Delay series) and way (no(h)-setting, hoofer), Leslie Scalapino sharpens her attention in language to the zero point at which words, almost disappearing, make present the world whose events we live in every day. Her settings are 'contemporary,' no(h)where, non local urban places composed of fragments of scenes we have seen first hand: The woman who's not arrested -- on/ the bus -- from banging the seat; the other taxi -- up on the sidewalk; the people -- whole/ families -- who'd gone to sleep on/ the side walks -- in rows; and fragments of scenes we haven't perhaps seen, have only read of or heard about: the corpses put into the river for/ burial. But more often than not the setting for this stripped down bone-spare writing is left open -- in/ a city, in a crowd, the lovely/ city, the/ lovely/ city, the lovely/ city, the/ lovely city -- interrupted syntax and line breaks setting off in lines in stanzas placed as if to float (silently) on the white space of the page:

                                to make
                                -- as/
                                in -- their
                                -- it
                                with --
                                a person -- in
                                a time.

                                it -- as --
                                with -- an

Unfolding in short declarative bursts that seem to scatter sense, ricochet it off the edge of the page, the sound of way is a window open on a landscape that is interior and realistic, one in which the violence captured in its pair of black and white cover photographs -- titled "couple dancing in bar" and "men fighting on sidewalk" -- could erupt: the thief -- a boy/ taking the grocery store/ owner all the way into a/ back room -- having already- shot the guard -- to shoot him -- as/ very close; her -- the -- car was destroyed/ by a manhole cover -- on the street -- going through it. It presents that world head-on, in views that amount to glancing blows, at once direct and oblique, a landscape composed of frankly sexual confrontations (having put/ the/ lily pad in/ herself --/ encouraging the man/ to/ come inside/ her; to/ -- suck on -- the man's part/ now -- between the legs) and everyday street-event violence made extraordinary by Scalapino's stacatto-like hammering out of its detail (my/ relation to the mugger -- a/ boy -- coming up behind/ us -- grabbing the other woman's/ purse -- in his running into the park).

The underpinning of Scalapino's writing of the world is suggested in the passage from David Bohm's Causality & Chance in Modern Physics she has taken for her epigraph. "Nature may have in it an infinity of different kinds of things," Bohm begins, and through a series of careful definitions ("this type of interconnection we shall denote by the name of reciprocal relationship, to distinguish it from mere interaction...") and syllogisms ("Thus we conclude that the notion of things implies that a complete and eternally applicable definition of any given thing is not possible in terms of any finite number of qualities and properties...") moves to his conclusion: If "no such a thing can ever remain identical with itself as time passes . . . we admit also that nevertheless there still exists an absolute, unique, and objective reality." That reality is the world way creates in fast fresh forward motion, a world of words shorted-out (interrupted), perception in lines broken by dashes, events in a constant state of flux, articulated syllable by syllable, one line at a time, catching the world's change -- as/ fragile in the junctures words slip between,

                                to make
                                -- as
                                in -- their
                                -- it
                                with --
                                a person -- in
                                a time

Passages in italics are from way (North Point Press, 1988).

* * *


The person who is reading (Leslie Scalapino) stands at the end of a room in which other people have gathered to listen. There are cars going by in the street outside, and sometimes a bus (louder) pulling away from the curb. She is reading and they are listening to the bus stopping for them to get down -- and the car is behind it and the hand that is not holding the book is clenched but open, a representation of the violence of The couple crushing the steer's head. Slitting its throat, with the blood coming from the light red throat.

And the flesh is attention, muscles at the back of her neck and shoulders knotted in spite of what the drug might do to relax them -- dope in the ravines wrinkled rivulets like cotton tufts in the sides of the ravines. Her voice as it goes on faster, up a notch in pitch in the exact moment of it, as the words that make the novel build.

The ones who are the audience are hearing the enactment -- and the cars coursing on the overpass by the café to it. The writing makes what is seen or known about (through hearing or reading) that much more present, as thinking makes it so On her part. And theirs.

Geared to this -- writing an act one does as complement to being. Completely involved at the place the mind sets in motion, that is. The one who is reading In the very hot weather -- here in late November (when it is cold) coming to where another cab on the sidewalk had been left -- cracked up with a bus that's left, beside it, on the walk -- in the moonlight, though some of the people who are listening have removed their coats.

If there is violence one will notice, more and more in what occurs, the beauty of it (as fear). The man sitting over the corpse as a vigil, is arising from -- him not having money, though it is done with care for someone passing away. The sound of this is a register the reader's voice approaches. When the page turns or she shifts the book from one hand to the other, the other one then becoming clenched, the pauses -- interruptions of breath, as a dash -- are as much a part of what is said as the words between them.

Silence, that is, is a moment between the words. This is when the words think -- as what's being communicated -- and that of possessing a thing, which isn't so -- nor is there being communicating. The mind in fact the difference

                                when that -- nature
                                is open in it

writing as the picture of what happens.

What she calls the comic book may be this, seeing this or remembering as it is real. The section for instance she is reading of postcards with black and white photographs, captions written by hand. Instead of turning the page when it is done she places the card on the chair, as if to put one's thought out of mind -- which then occurs in the frames of the comic book afterward. Photographs of people standing or sitting (squatting) in water, though grass is mentioned it is not present.

Some of the people one imagines as plants, parts of the body. The man had put his stem in to her -- on her swimming around. They are in the water she is writing as a picture of

                                him coming in her -- swimming on her flat on her.
                                her flat. on the stem.

This is not in the photograph but in the mind, one that knows by means of what it thinks to write.

The photograph becomes the trigger, whether it stands on the page as the picture when the feeling occurs or cards (piling up on the chair) whose photographs have been cropped. The picture as this frame, and so the frame is ahead of what's there. It is not the same as looking at the event but being in it. The writing she is reading being the event -- only the view -- or that being -- fragile.

The book (or cards) she is reading in her head is the voice inside experience and therefore rebelling. The other hand clenched, its fingers extended, because it doesn't hold the book, and so experience itself is convention and we are outside of experience. The book can be seen and its words can be heard (in the air) in place. So this is what she thinks to say of the unfolding of phenomena . . . . and we would stop it have it come back in if we were not that.

Passages in italics are from The Return of Painting, The Pearl, and Orion (North Point Press, 1991).