Friday, June 20, 2008

some writing reflecting some thinking from a current project

What kinds of books do we want to write? How can we, those of us who are heterotopian medieval critics and historians—think about, radically, how we construct our papers, essays, and books, in such a way that our bodies and others’ bodies are opened to each other, according to our politics? Many of us are historians of things in old books, or are book historians, or at least write or aspire to write things about texts we find in old books. What is a possible theory of the book for such medievalists as us? I think we need such theories—to fill Book History with radical recklessness. Also, to bridge Book Histories with a moment in which we need to learn about what kinds of books to make. What can we—we medievalists—say about what a book can do to a body today, today at the moment of Gautanamo? of AbuGrahib? Do we learn anything about what a book is for, what a book can do, and how we can refine our labor to produce such books, from Medieval practices? What are possible poetics of critical essays on medieval literature and history and language?

Well, Jacques Derrida announced “The End of the Book and the Beginning of Writing” long before I was a twinkle in the eye of any graduate seminar. So how can I ask these questions, today, which are about how poetic economies in a popular Romance can alter, theoretically, the functioning of a Medieval Book on the body of a reader, and what this might teach us about possible alternatives to what a book might do now. I think that the short romance Orfeo gives us its own hint about what a medievalist should talk about what a book can do to a body. Surviving within three Ms.s, and thus ostensibly ‘popular,’ the poem is famous for its tableau in the Fairy kingdom of bodies mid-brutal-death—which Jeffrey Cohen read last spring at Kalamzoo as an attempt to deaden the threat posed by memory of Celtic language and culture by freezing it, under a rock, in deep time. Such is a poem whose poetics are preoccupied with doing things to bodies.

And this is the first hint I will follow: poetics. Poetics provoke, and provoke well beyond the plans of any auctor. Poetics outlines, the chalk-outline, the always receding shoreline, of the call, the work and labor of language. I think we think to think alongside Heidegger’s thought, à la Poetry Language Thought to think such things, regardless of what we think of Heidegger. We need to think the poetics of the book, the history of poetics of books. The multi-author edited volume, such as BABEL’s recent book with Palgrave, bears testament to what might happen when we attend to such a construction, allowing a babel of critics in the same space at the same time. And, as medievalists, we are in a privileged position to think this history—a history which will have to link a phenomenology of a reader’s body with the closest readings of language, and careful attention to material condition of book production and the labors involved in producing as well as reading it.

But how do we consider a category like ‘poetics’ in the actual construction of our books? The rising popularity of print-on-demand book, for example, especially of low press-run books like those of medieval critics [even such as Stephen Justice’s infamous Writing and Rebellion, which is now laser and not offset printed, on demand, by University of California Press, as a quick check on the publisher’s page reveals if you have a recent-printed copy] reveal, like the so-called household manuscripts in which Orfeo appeared, that books might have a very strategic function, that they are constructed, and sometimes on an individual basis are for specific things. While Timothy A. Shonk dismisses the original hypothesis about the Auchinleck Ms. (the most famous home of the poem in question that book was produced in a bustling and well-organized London Bookshop, he does suggest that it was produced with a plan, of separate sections not ever intended for separate sale, but still produced by multiple scribes under the direction of a single scribes and then an artist who was the client was seeking a single volume which would fulfill the reading needs of his family and himself, much as people today order collections like the Harvard Classics.” (Timothy A. Shonk, “A Study of the Auchinleck Mansucript: Bookmen and Bookmaking in the Early Fourteenth Century,” Speculum (60:1, Jan. 1985) 71-91.) This whole process would suggest itself as an attempt at corporeal integration. Obviously, eternal optimist that I am (I am not sure if that is sarcastic or not!), I think Orfeo’s poetics might threaten a short circuit in this whole business.

I am asking how attending to the specific textures of the language of our work can alter what books are materially for, with respect to bodies. In a sense, this inquiry into Orfeo is old fashioned, in that it is not dependent on time with physical manuscripts and evidence that does not appear in orthographic form. But in another sense it is attempting to take seriously, very seriously, some of the hard-won yet still often forgotten tenets of that beast Theory, which teaches that language speaks us, and so to ask what language can do to how a book functions with a reader’s body. I am happy to say also, that poetics help us sidestep a kind of source criticism which depends on a kind of linear history of continuous recognizable strands that I do not think will help us think alternatives to our book-writing.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

The Romance of the Borrowed Umbrella


I have made, since finishing my MFA in Poetry in April, several attempts at a return to writing fiction (I think I wrote about 10 pages of fiction while attempting over the last three years to channel all my writing energies into poems and seminar papers) which were smashed by the wyrds quicker than you can say 'ruined.' This is no surprise, given that I've written so little fiction recently. But recently I also stumbled on a thread that I like a great deal. I had generated some sets of scattered sentences which were vaguely narrative and loosely connected, and I found some aesthetic and pedagogical sinews to string them together, over the past couple of days.

I then thought that I wanted to keep working with this language, language that seems to resemble a narrative and, as H. James might say, 'see it through.' Yet I knew that, regardless of any intention to 'complete' a 'story,'that I would fall, inevitably, into the various doldrums of fiction-writing which usually best me--things like 'plot,' 'character,' and other such narrative filigrees. I knew, in fact, what any of my friends or colleagues who have read my Hemingway-"The Sea-Change"-"Banal Story"-4 page-prose-is this a prose poem or a story-labors have known: that I can rarely sustain a work of fiction beyond 4 pages.

A solution then presented itself to me. I would need the freedom allowed only by increment and periodicity, the hazy time of the hiatus, the pause, the spacing in writing which marks the crises of "am I still speaking/breathing" and human death (cf. Derrida). Then, I would need readers who were patient, who wouldn't mind having a story shot through with ghostly 'middle spaces' between the visitations of written labor. How can I write a story of any length in which any one line can connect with any other line (cf. Deleuze and Guattarri)? How can I write a story in which there are multiplied microcosms of mathematically engineered precision poetics connected by lines connecting lines with each other so many times that none emerge as the sovereign term? Writing that could occasionally, periodically, fizzle up in a flash of quickness and with the lightness of off-kilter mechanical-organic fungus-like generation, flash itself, suspended between the poles and posts of electronic self-publishing (which is a mess perhaps more elegant even than the algea of manuscripts piling up lost, unread, altered, adulterated, or re-doubled tha Italo Calvino describes in If on a Winter's Night...)? I would need the form of the serial, the medium of the blog.

This will, I think, allow me to work with a schedule, work in small enough bursts that it feels possible, and do so without the overt [yet still direct, google-owned-blogspot] influence of the market forces which once governed serial fiction production. Also, I have always loved the possibilities of loss and disjunction, the inevitability of ever-changing or incomplete multiple versions, etc., allowed by the serial. Those spaces between installments! And perhaps a Romance [and when I write a fiction, no matter how banal or short or secular, I almost always wish it to aspire to the conditions of Romance (see my previous post on Hawthorne), ringing true not so clearly with Hawthorne's truth of the human-heart business, but with the haunting between-ness of a 'foothold between fiction and reality' opening into a language so full of holes that when it finally speaks us we might slip back into the world, which is, I think, a part of what the middle spaces of future human hearts might feel like] and its haunting-pattern of periodic visitation might fizzle well together into the blogosphere.

And so, dearest readers, I ask you to read the first installment of THE ROMANCE OF THE BORROWED UMBRELLA.


  "You better go to your favorite restaurant and eat your favorite dinner, because you ain't got much time left on earth," said the man with his belly pluming over the bar at the end of the bench on the subway. His upright posture was mostly compromised by his lean. Germy was interested, though perhaps also he was interested. Is interested, is leaning, is dying. The train creaked under its floor. What is happening and how is the character. Also on the train were Sammy and Eli, were Alisha and Remus. They all knew some things. Is knowing. The man with the pluming belly did not appear to be on a phone, though his voice seemed to plume also in the way a voice speaking into a cellphone would plume about a car and invade everyone. Germy first thought he would be on a cell phone because of how his voice sounded but behold Germy realized he was not on a phone because behold they were in a subway car and phones could not get a signal there and then also Germy looked at the man and saw no cellphone. That man was looking at someone but Germy couldn't see that particular person. Why not? Because Sammy was in the way, and Eli and Sammy were arguing: so Eli's arms, which are part of Eli, were also in the way. So Germy turned to Alisha and Remus who were seated next to him on the bench, which was across the aisle from the bellied man, but Germy didn't say anything. Remus had no tattoos but Alisha had a couple. They were black with the tiniest tinge of green-grey and they were on her arms. She got them when she was a rocker, which she was no more. Germy was pleased to look at the tattooed arms. The bellied man repeated himself: "You better go to your favorite restaurant and eat your favorite dinner." He was shaking his head. Is interested, is a plot. There was also no plot around or for Germy. "If he sent out 500 packets of bird and twice that of trays on those boats, he ain't got much time left to live."
   Sammy, by this time, had stopped to argue with Eli but Eli had not stopped to argue with Sammy. They were not brothers, they are not symbolic and their arms moved rather slowly when argumentatively gesticulating. Eli said,
   "Hey Jim-bo," and the bellied man nodded, successfully hailed and interpolated. "D'ya wannit er not? " Eli shot a winced glance and Jim-bo and then threw a victorious one back to Sammy, who was sweating.
   Alisha turned to Remus and asked him, with a secret imploring eye-twitch, if he was done reading for the day. Alisha was a paleontologist. Remus turned to her also. And then Germy turned to both of them. Remus had dark hair like a swamp, is a swamp full of the cover of factory. Germy decided to whisper to Remus, his friend.
   "I've been in the party too long." Germy turned his head, with its edges like a three-ringed binder, towards Jim-bo. Remus raised an eyebrow, sucked in his lips for a second. Germy then turned back and spoke at a regular volume. "I think I just watched to many of the record videos, clipped too many of those files, and gave too many farm-maps in that basement workshop we ran before the whole thing worked." Saying that made him sound like any little shop owner talking to his partners about being sick of work. Is sick, work, like a ribbon of river-oil jumping into your collection-pail. Remus raises again and sick, though there is no plot, he was happening and the party probably knew it. New York never was so before this little inscription on the edge of the sidelines of the ribbon of a carriage or car shifting along like a chip allows a zipping of energy through, this plot. The bellied man coughed. If plot, this language warns.


   Germy was nervous. He knew. Coming for him. The man in the car. Creak-tink, rrrrrrreeeeeeee. The car was not a message but its sounds might be, they were both a compression of the world: Germy and the Car--and was Jim-bo too? Germy and Alisha and Remus were pals. They did not know Eli or Sammy, but all three knew Jim-bo by sight and knew that he knew them by the same in turn, although none of them had ever spoken words to each other or so much as been introduced. They each had seen each speak at party meetings but they came from different corners. Eli spoke to Jim-bo about the birds and trays and the ships.
   "...'cuz I'm tellin' ya, ifin he doan givup what can't be..." Germy was now certain that Jim-bo knew he left the party that morning. Jim-bo wasn't actually party 'brain' (and, since the big hoopla there had been no need of the old style party 'brawn') but some people thought he was smart because he ran a good little shop in his hamlet, ever since the hamlets started, and so sometimes certain persons plotted that he should speak. Remus was still a certain person, but trying. Since the hoopla, he stuck with Alisha. Remus and Germy once shared an apartment and when to a party's, until Remus was plucked for a meeting-map.
   More nervous, Germy turned to Alisha. She he trusted much with lines outletted for hope of insights. She nodded and eyebrowed towards Jim-bo. They should head back to her city-rooms. She was lucky to have them anyway. Most didn't since the hoopla, if in the party. Most jetted when the sense was to start the flushout to the hamlets. But Alisha was a wily one. They should. Back to her city-rooms. When they left from the river-cubby that morning, the plan for the trip and meeting was to be eventful.
   But is happening. Germy wished it was raining, like when a kid and in a house. There was a raining at night for summers and he was usually pleased. Like that night he walked home with a borrowed umbrella. Then again, after the move for the party, even then in his tiny apartment carved out of what had been a Columbia University class-building. LIke from Prospect Park Boat house all the way with the borrowed. Clackity clackity.
   "Why not finally introduce yourself?" said Remus. "The last time was saw him--even from afar--was cycling from swamp-hill to the little ring of typesetters' cottages that were making posters for us upstate, he may not remember." The ring of cottages was not quite ribboned into the closest hamlet, not the closest hamlet roads. And, most of the party no had assented to the trend of no longer keeping annals, so they were slipping further off the Pale. Don't be fooled, if meant is the pulling of the ribbon not the thing itself, the ribbon-ing, an engineered ribboning ferns its way through around. Germy pointed to his mustache.
  "Are you kiddin? He knows me alright." Rain and train or, clackety clickety rain or train but the curving like a time. Train stopped, mid-tunnel. Germy to speak with Jim-bo up and lips set. Is wished, engineered, and away. It may have been engineered but not is symmetrical or standing like a block and there are a few and perhaps it is still a ribbon, not an object.
   "Jim-bo right?" Germy asked. Jim-bo turned like a rolling onion on a counter.
   "I wasn't talking about you."
   "Just now. I was talking about a business deal outside the Pale of Slipp. A covered one but you looked nervous when I said something about someone's possible last day on earth, and since you were nervous and I said that, you probably are. But I wasn't talking about you.'
   "Oh, I'm--" Jim-bo would it. Creeeeeee! Train going again.
   "You've been in the party too long. You once wanted. You better go to your favorite restaurant and eat your favorite dinner, because you ain't got much time left on earth, Germy."