How Phenomena Appear to Unfold by Leslie Scalapino
(Litmus press, Brooklyn, 2011)
Although I’ve never much cared for Leslie Scalapino’s poems and often found her public appearances extremely trying How Phenomena Appear to Unfold encompasses substantially significant work. Scalapino’s passionate dedication to poetry: articulate, troublesome (as well as usefully troubled) is daring and lives comfortably within itself. Alive in rich exchange of ideas and feelings together, Scalapino crucially thinks with her body in writing. She delves into crossways where otherwise divergent paths of mind, soul, spirit, and heart are to be witnessed brought together. It’s a precision tinged challenging of historical orders of thought, particularly those of Occidental origin. It is poet’s work: a life work. Brilliant and energy giving: generously demanding. You should read her. As she says, commenting upon Beckett, the consideration she offers of work by others demonstrates, “the way we ‘as reading’ are inside Beckett’s seeing.” Scalapino enacts a de-mummification of active thinking in writing. Such “seeing” from out her perception of sight should not be missed.
This is both an expansion and a re-working of the previous 1989 edition of a collection by the same title. As Scalapino writes in her Preface, the writing “is conceived as an ongoing, flexible structure that incorporates demonstrations of its gestures, such as poem-plays and poem-sequences alongside essays” and she has enlarged this new edition “omitting some pieces and adding by interweaving twenty-one new essays (only three of which had been published in previous books) and seven additional poetic works.” It is her stated intent that “the unfolding structure of the book mime and demonstrate—be (and be seeing) the process and the instant of—the inside and the outside simultaneously creating each other.” The conversation is internally resonant with itself. Reading this book is an experience of deep immersion into Scalapino’s critically creative gears and shafts. And she provides the necessary tools to get dirty with her.
Philip Whalen is a central re-occurring poet whose work Scalapino turns to as mirror to her own. While her take on Whalen may often be arguably self-serving, it is not the “nonsense” I am previously guilty of having been in agreement with a fellow poet of finding it to be. Her extrapolation of “Whalen’s view that the poem precedes thinking” is quite of use in digging beneath Whalen’s somewhat commoner appearing surfaces, too often his own humbleness allowing for his work to evade such deep penetration of its brilliance. Scalapino locates our awareness to instances where Whalen clearly demonstrates that “the poem thinks itself, being ahead of the person” as she strives towards articulating her own practice of the poem as entity in the process of its creation. Like Whalen, she would relinquish her control over writing in order that the writing acts on its own; that, no matter whatever else, it finds its own way. As she writes of her own work, “it is phenomena as being one’s mind. ‘Seeing’ is not separate from being action and these are only the process of the text/one’s mind phenomena. Writing is therefore an experiment of reality.” And commenting on Whalen’s work, again: “The poem is one’s always leaping out of one’s mind, not being in the same moment of one’s mind there.”
Scalapino’s writing has ambitious agendas. In her essay/talk “Disbelief” an enlarged version of what was originally presented on a panel discussion concerned with the body and Language Poetry, she interweaves comments made by poet Suzanne Stein on an early draft of the writing she shared with her. Discussing her poem series “that they were at the beach—aeolotropic series,” Scalapino writes “The effort again is also to thereby actually change the fabric that is the past, literally.” And Stein responds “to change the body’s past/ or the single body’s past is one thing, to change the historical past [which doesn’t exist anyway] is an undertaking with terrible implications. I don’t disagree with you, I’m just frightened by it.” This triggers Scalapino to in turn respond that yes there is “a terrible implication which I don’t intend, but which is occurring in some of the writing as also events, similar to tactics of some political regimes, is the rewriting of history supplanting what did occur with what did not occur” yet she admits “the implications of changing one’s own actual historical events are also terrifying whether or not introducing simply rewriting: voiding events would be to have no history and therefore no bounds or ‘life.’” She does not back away from declaring this impulse behind her writing, “This was in fact my purpose.” As Scalapino elsewhere remarks on Alice Notley’s poem “White Phosphorus,” with her use of quotation marks to cluster words and phrases, “The ‘form’ has become an apparatus, a device for transforming actual life and death.”
Scalapino also acknowledges in “Disbelief” various rifts she experienced as they arose within and around the Language poets in 70s-80s San Francisco. She relates “My language, which I intended as study of individual’s thought-shape and sensations, Ron Silliman apparently saw as self-expression. Thus he criticized me in letters (“You refuse to question self.”)” And tells how she was “critiqued a number of times by poets for “originality” while being told that there is no such thing (all ideas and gesture are appropriated.)” The deep irony of such fraternity-like hazing activity is not lost on Scalapino.
In the early ‘80s in San Francisco the phrase “Language bashing” or “Language basher” arose (from Ron Silliman?) as a term for those who criticized Language poetry, appropriated from the term “gay bashing” (meaning episodes of beating or even killing people who are gay). That is, critique of Language poetry was equated with a civil rights or human rights violation. As if any criticism were inherently wrong and violent. This sequestered and sequestering tendency obviously is anti-social. Yet I think this insular gesture was related to the sense that a social communion was possible. That is, actual community ‘there’ was the ideal.
As she notes at the end of the essay, her “critique is not of the Language movement as such but of sexism and gender custom as the social construction of reality.” In a final bit of scrappiness, she adds showing a terrific bit of spunk that the essay “though an afterthought on my part, is a contribution as a part of memoir” to The Grand Piano/ An experiment in Collective Autobiography, San Francisco, 1975-80 then being published serially as authored by her Language peers.
In a good, gruff extended squabble extrapolated from out her book R-hu Scalapino takes Marjorie Perloff to the mat. At issue are negative remarks made by Perloff in an early review of Scalapino, dismissing her work as inferior to that of Silliman, along with remarks Perloff delivered both publicly and privately at the Page Mothers conference in San Diego. Perloff spoke to the effect that not only were women poets unable to reach as fine an experimental poetics as men, but also that they were unable to articulate an adequate theorizing of their own work. Perloff stated that this is her own function since she is “the critic, you are the poets.” Which Scalapino understands as “meaning, you cannot think about what you are doing.” Naturally, Scalapino knows what Perloff doesn’t get, namely that “for poets conception is the art.” Scalapino tidily sums up any and all future consideration of Perloff’s work:
Perloff has been instrumental in popularizing Language writing, yet doing so by praising works in terms of a socially and poetically/conceptually conservative interpretation. It would be good to now return to the works and reassess the range of their interpretations.
In her terseness, guided by a strict adherence to a set of principles to which she aligned herself early on in her writing, Scalapino’s criticism shines with crystalline clarity. Other extensive writings are gathered herein on Robert Creeley, Lyn Hejinian, Robert Grenier, and Michael McClure among others. Litmus press has provided a wonderful service publishing this collection. This is a fine and beautiful book produced with an eye for emphasizing the high quality of the poetics behind its shaping. It’s good, good stuff.
Patrick James Dunagan lives in San Francisco and works in Gleeson library at University of San Francisco. His most recent book is There Are People Who Think That Painters Shouldn't Talk: A GUSTONBOOK (Post Apollo, 2011), other writing of his appears in Amerarcana, Barzakh, The Critical Flame, Fulcrum, House Organ, New Pages, Poetry Project Newsletter, Rain Taxi, Sous les Paves, Switchback, and Wild Orchids.