from Poetics.ca #5...

The Anonlinear Aesthetic

The ideas in this essay emerged from writing my latest play, All Is Almost Still, which premiered in May 2004 at the 78th Street Theatre Lab in New York.

Anonlinear (ānonlin’ē ər).
Please place in pipe and smoke.
There. You have already warmed up to it.

Anonlinear: not linear, not nonlinear, but anonlinear, neither and both.

Anon.-linear: anonymous lines.

I have devised the term as the literary and dramatic equivalent of "non-atonal music," which is how the contemporary composer György Ligeti has described his work. Non-atonal music, as the term suggests, does not cleave to a tonal centre, as in the music of Bach and Mozart, nor does it completely eschew tonality in favor of free, unbounded, or even aleatory explorations, as in Schoenberg and Cage. Rather, it exists in a permanent state of suspension that reaches toward, but never fully grasps, tonal resolution. The only resolution, insofar as there ever is one, is in silence. In lacking a defined tonic, Ligeti’s music is certainly atonal, yet its inherent traces of tonality, as if of a harmony that once was, set it apart. By analogy, imagine an impossible physics in which electrons circle an absent, defunct nucleus and, as opposed to flying off aimlessly due to instability, remain bound by a residual, habitual momentum and a yearning for wholeness. The result would be a different kind of atom, a new construction with an inbuilt memory of its former self.

By bearing aspects of both the tonal and atonal, non-atonal music unites these diametrically opposed forms. In this sense, it accomplishes what Friedrich Schiller claims of beauty, namely, that it unites opposing conditions and, in the process, destroys and preserves them.[1] The term he uses for this paradoxical phenomenon is aufgehoben, meaning nullified, destroyed, and also lifted up or preserved.[2] Recently, aufgehoben has come to be translated as sublated, but (if you will permit me two neologisms in one essay) I would like to render the term in English as eraised, combining "erased" (nullified, destroyed) with "raised" (lifted up or preserved). Thus, in joining apparent opposites, beauty or non-atonal music (or, as we shall see later, the anonlinear work of art) eraises them to a new state.

(Having said that, I don’t want to portray this process of eraisure as an evolutionary or teleological improvement in art, the way that Hegel, who could never run backwards, would have. After all, it is hard to improve upon Bach! And, while I have drawn a straight line from Bach to Schoenberg to Ligeti, who eraises the former two, this process should also not be characterized as a purely historical progression. Beethoven’s Grosse Fugue string quartet (Opus 133), for example, achieves moments of atonality that rival many 20th-century avant-garde compositions; and percussion since time immemorial -- if only we had recordings that date back as far! -- has ranged the spectrum from tonal to non-atonal. Art does not improve. It exists throughout time in multifarious forms, and it is for artists to channel its eternal spirit in the spirit of their times.)

Before moving on to the anonlinear work of art, a brief summary of its antecedents is in order. Linear art is literally straightforward. It is best described in Aristotle’s "Poetics" as a unified narrative -- with a beginning, middle and end -- that presents a complication and offers a resolution.[3] The resolution usually leaves the characters happy and alive, as in comedies, or disgraced and dead, as in tragedies. This, of course, is the most prevalent type of aesthetic representation we know, and for good reason: it is an excellent model, easy for the artist to construct and for the audience to follow. Easy to make, perhaps, but not to make well, as this model can generate anything from Oedipus Rex to the majority of commercial movies. Nonlinear art, on the other hand, dismantles this structure and allows the emerging individual parts to outshine any unified whole. Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy (1759—1767), of course, is a famous example. Two other great examples are Georg Büchner’s Woyzeck[4] (first printed posthumously in 1879) and William Burroughs’ Naked Lunch[5] (1962; ". . . I try to focus the words . . . they separate in meaningless mosaic . . ."), both of which were found in fragmented disorder, and, I believe, are best assembled and presented that way. Beginning, middle, and end are destroyed, leaving time in coruscating shatters. John Donne’s poetic comment on the Copernican disruption of the Ptolemaic universe, wherein the earth once held proudly at the centre, could equally apply to the nonlinear aesthetic: "’Tis all in pieces, all coherence gone."[6]

Anonlinear art eraises linear and nonlinear modes in an aesthetic that encompasses both the temporal breadth and unity of the linear and the dismantled parts of the nonlinear, the clarity and the confusion, the whole and its fragments. It reflects a world in which time is at once in motion and static, changing and changeless without contradiction. Sometimes to the human eye the spokes of a forward-spinning car tire spin backwards or stand still. That is how the anonlinear represents time, encompassing various directions while always rolling ahead. In this way, this rendering of temporality can contain seemingly opposing vectors in life, which Kierkegaard expressed so eloquently in Repetition (1843): "Just as [the Greeks] taught that all knowing is a recollecting, modern philosophy will teach that all life is a repetition. [. . .] Repetition and recollection are the same movement, except in opposite directions, for what is recollected has been, is repeated backward, whereas genuine repetition is recollected forward."[7]

Repetition is time’s microscope. It magnifies temporality’s interstices and is, therefore critical in the anonlinear. Excellent examples of this relationship can be found in the works of Franz Kafka and Samuel Beckett. Winnie of Beckett’s Happy Days,[8] buried up to her waist in wasted earth, and later to her neck, repeats her daily routine to the point where differentiating between one day and the next (acts I and II) would be impossible were it not the case that all her actions occur, metaphorically, in the bottom half of an hourglass. Her days are numbered: one day she is buried to her waist, and the next to her neck, yet this disconcerting, insurmountable development effects little change in her daily regimen. Time moves on but does not progress. If Winnie’s days are numbered, then her husband Willie’s words are certainly being counted. He utters a total of 52 in the first act (reflecting the passage of a year?), and merely one in the second (reflecting a year? week? day?), and, so, unconsciously betrays his temporal entrapment, which, though far more subtle than his wife’s, is no less binding. In this play, burdened as it is by time, Winnie’s days may be clearly differentiated by the accumulation of sand around her, but her insistence on incessant repetition causes Aristotle’s unified dramatic structure (beginning-middle-end) to dissolve in an eternal present that is balanced, even deadlocked, by the competing forces of repetition and recollection. Repetition is apparent from the very first line: "Another heavenly day." -- another. Recollection, too, is in abundance, especially in light of Winnie’s affinity for speaking in "the old style," although much of it is unsuccessful, particularly when she is quoting literature: "What is that wonderful line?" (HD, page 141) These equal and opposite forces of repetition and recollection, in light of the happy title of Beckett’s play, relate to the continuation of Kierkegaard’s formulation quoted earlier: "Repetition, therefore, if it is possible, makes a person happy, whereas recollection makes him unhappy . . ." (Repetition, page 131).

In Kafka’s parable, "An Imperial Message," the anonlinear condition is transposed to the reader’s imagination. A messenger passes barrier after barrier in an attempt to reach you with a message from the Emperor, but the mission will never succeed: "Nobody could fight his way through here even with a message from a dead man." Then the tale (never)ends with a tantalizing, (in)concluding line: "But you sit at your window when evening falls and dream it to yourself."[9] The parable is rooted in linear time insofar as the Emperor dispatches his messenger, who sets out on his journey, during which time passes and the Emperor dies. This would be completely straightforward (literally) were it not for the ingenious conclusion that casts all prior description into a state of infinite suspension and reflection in your mind, forcing you to recollect back to the Emperor and his messenger, who repeats an endless movement forward toward you. In this one page of concentrated prose, Kafka leaves you in an anonlinear contemplation of what is, what was, and what will be. "A poem is not timeless," Paul Celan once asserted. "Certainly it lays claim to infinity, it seeks to reach through time – through it, not above and beyond it."[10] Through time, anonlinear time, Kafka does just that.

Most poetry is conducive to the anonlinear in that it often explores or explodes a single moment in time. Moreover, it accomplishes such effect through rhythm or meter, clear units of time itself, thereby capturing time in time. Emily Dickinson’s strong, hymn-like meter drives her poems from beginning to end (frequently an absolute end of death and burial), while the lines are broken up into dash-riddled fragments that capture and preserve the many parts of the poem, which, in their independent and interdependent splendor, are reflective of and equal to their sum. When faced with the flowing, broad handwriting of Dickinson’s original manuscripts, as opposed to the cramped published versions, this ingenious balance of part and whole becomes even more apparent, so graciously do her dashes traverse the page to simultaneously divide and join the poems’ pieces, disrupt and accentuate their meter. They are both rift and bridge, division and connection – the space between a meditating Buddha’s fingers. Has any other poet accomplished this impossibility -- a dash that both marks and stops time? (It is interesting to contrast the flowing, unified fragments of Dickinson’s poetry with the fractured, unstable speech patterns of Winnie in Beckett’s Happy Days or Mouth in his short play Not I.) It is in these dashes that the anonlinear appears, hesitant to leave the last phrase, pushing on to the next, and pausing contemplatively between. The resulting choice of directions and tempos with which to contemplate the poem enriches its connotative possibilities, as Dickinson would discover in reading the works of others: "Did you ever read one of her Poems backward, because the plunge from the front overturned you? I sometimes (often have, many times) have -- A something overtakes the Mind -- ."[11]

In terms of its stops and starts, its unity in spite of and because of fragmentation, and its temporal struggles, the writing of Maurice Blanchot can be thought of as a philosophical, poetic-prose extension of Dickinson. Blanchot’s novel (if it can be so called), L’attente l’oubli [Awaiting oblivion] is a sound point of comparison in that it combines "two very different, contradictory, and arguably incompatible modes of writing: narration and fragmentation,"[12] or, put another way, unity and disunity, the linear and nonlinear. Through fragmentation, the book does not dissolve but expands into specifics, allowing the reader, as if through the eyes of a fly on the wall, to see multiple views of the same vision. The book is composed of many fragmented entries of dialogue and narration that relay and elude, reveal and conceal the condition of a man and a woman alone together in a sparsely furnished hotel room. Yet, Blanchot avoids the disintegration of his novel into incoherent pieces by insisting on their cohesion, resulting in a Dickinsonian eraisure of unity and fragmentation in a way that expands dash-laden phrases into entries ranging from one sentence to several pages in length. By separating each entry with a new line and introducing it with a prominent asterisk, Blanchot, in effect, develops Dickinson’s working units of word and phrase into sentence and paragraph. Consider: "The meaning of this whole story was that of a long sentence that could not be cut up into segments, that would discover its meaning only at the end and that, at the end, would find its meaning only as a breath of life, the motionless movement of the story in its entirety" (Ao, page 11). Ironically, this very claim to a "whole story" is presented in the context of one of the book’s many fragments. In fact, the entry that follows this one is but one sentence long. Amazingly, Blanchot creates a world in which none of this is contradictory. Collectively, the simultaneously independent and interdependent entries create the quality of "motionless movement" through a paradoxical succession of interminable stops. The result is a style of writing that, in Blanchot’s words, characterizes the "rhapsodic mode of composition" (a mode that overlaps on many levels with the anonlinear) described in The Infinite Conversation as

"that perpetual repetition from episode to episode, an interminable amplification of the same unfolding in place, which makes each rhapsode neither a faithful reproducer nor an immobile rehearser but the one who carries the repetition forward and, by means of repetition, fills in or widens the gaps, opens and closes the fissures by new peripeteia . . . ."[13]

Repetition is described as a form of magnification and exploration of a particular place, allowing each rhapsodic segment to carry the repetition forward -- not forward in terms of a linear progression, however, but forward in a way that repeats, develops, expands and reflects on the previous occurrence to "fill in or widen the gaps," to elucidate or mystify the past turned present and future. Thus all proceedings are formed of precedings. The repetition of practice, it turns out, does not so much make perfect as make richer, more textured, more enigmatic, and, ultimately truer, in the sense that (to modify an edict of Walter Benjamin) it opens the possibility for an unfolding revelation that does justice to the mystery.[14]

In a sentence that carries enough weight to constitute an entire entry on its own in L’attente l’oubli, the narrator states that "There must be no turning back" (Ao, page 8). This is an impossible commandment to follow, given that repetition and recollection share the same path. Though moving inexorably forward, all tenses and all directions in Blanchot’s anonlinear rhapsodies merge in an all-encompassing, ineluctable bundle of temporality. "What is eloquent is the passing moment and the moment that will come after it. The shadow of yesterday’s world is still pleasant for people who take refuge in it, but it will fade. And the world of the future is already falling in an avalanche on the memory of the past."[15]

For a prototypical anonlinear representation of that most original of mysteries, the creation of the universe, it is worth exploring the beginning of the Hebrew Bible. This will also serve to illustrate again that the anonlinear, like its musical counterpart, non-atonal composition, is not the product of some imagined artistic evolution. My purpose is not to prove the emergence of something new, but, rather, to explore the qualities of a significant and challenging aesthetic that has not been addressed adequately, despite its having always existed. In fact, in describing his "rhapsodic mode of composition," which, as we have seen, bears qualities of the anonlinear aesthetic, Blanchot asserts that it was prominent historically in epic poetry. As with The Iliad and The Odyssey, so too with the creation myth of Genesis.

Much has been said of the "inconsistencies" that riddle the early chapters of Genesis: the waters that are separated from the firmament on the second day of creation, for example, are already in existence before God begins creating; man is made on day six (1: 27) only to be made again in the following chapter after the completion of creation (2: 7); man is made male and female in the first chapter (1: 27) while Eve’s creation in the second chapter (2: 22) considerably succeeds Adam’s (2: 7). These are simply a few of many possible illustrations, but are they really discrepancies? Surely the authors, editors, readers, arrangers, redactors or whoever assembled the text were aware of them. The only problems that exist here, therefore, are a result of our perception and not of haphazard authorship, as Genesis is inconsistent only when viewed within the limited confines of a linear framework. Moreover, the text also fails as a nonlinear narrative, since the days of creation are clearly numbered consecutively and the long chains of "begats" that provide interludes between stories establish a linear narrative through lineage. As an anonlinear text, however, Genesis can be read and understood as a work of paramount artistry.

In her exploration of Genesis, The Beginning of Desire, Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg addresses the tension precipitated by the coexistence of fragment and whole from the very opening of the text ("In the beginning, God created heaven and earth."[16]), describing it as "unities breaking down into smaller and increasingly specific parts."[17] From the start, the narrative gives way to both linear and nonlinear possibilities, with the unifying presence of God creating a divided, broken-up world. Rashi, the 11th-century commentator and father of biblical exegesis, responds to the opening verse in a way that surely would have brought satisfaction to Walter Benjamin: "This verse is nothing if not mysterious" (Zornberg, page 35). Perhaps, then, by this enigmatic quality, it works towards a true representation that will do justice to the mystery of our origins. Zornberg goes on to cite Rashi’s bold interpretation of this creation story at length:

"The text does not intend to teach the order of creation [Rashi writes] . . . . And if you say that this verse teaches that heaven and earth were created first . . . be ashamed of yourself! For the waters were already in existence, as it is written, ‘And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.’ (1: 2) Since there has not yet been any reference to the creation of the waters, they must already have been in existence before the earth and heaven were created. Clearly, then, the text does not propose to give a chronological account of creation."

It is no wonder, then, that every verse in Chapter 1, excepting the first, begins with "And," allowing for the synthesis of both a linear and nonlinear structure, at once a sequential and simultaneous occurrence. For example, if we read that "she did X and Y and Z," we could take that to mean that that she did X then Y then Z, or that she did XYZ at the same time (or, for that matter, YXZ or ZXY, etc.), or, finally, that she did all three sometimes at different times, sometimes at the same time, etc., but, ultimately, in no particular order, because such a narrative is not fixed temporally. Thus, a simple preposition in Genesis makes time all ways, an ordered confusion: 123456(7). A thousand years before Rashi, Philo of Alexandria similarly dismisses a sequential reading of Genesis by proposing that "we must think of God as doing all things simultaneously" and that the number six is designated for the days of creation only to preserve a sense of order.[18] Chaos, to Philo, precludes beauty (Philo, page 205), so he endows the number six with the essence of perfection and productivity by illustrating that it is equal to both the sum and product of its factors (i.e. 1 + 2 + 3 and 1 X 2 X 3). In other words, the number figures in the narrative for the sake of harmony, not chronology.

Zornberg proceeds to address Rashi’s reading above as follows:

"What emerges from Rashi’s provocative statement (‘The text does not reveal anything regarding the sequential order of creation.’) is a sense of the gaps, the unexplained, the need to examine and reexamine the apparently lucid text, with its account of a harmonious, coherent cosmology. There is a tension between the benevolent clarity and power of the narrative and the acknowledgement of mystery . . . ."

This mystery is achieved through the device at the core of the anonlinear: repetition. "And God said . . . ," "And God saw that it was good," "And the evening and the morning . . ." -- these recurring motifs that link the units of the story while marking a clear division between them act, in a way, as another narrational analogy to Dickinson’s dashes. The effect is disorienting for the reader ("Didn’t I read this before?" we may ask ourselves), making the sequence of days difficult to discern, as Rashi illustrates, and the causal links required in a clear narrative dissolve in repetition’s wake. What emerges instead is the "amplification of the same unfolding in place" described by Blanchot that fills in or widens the textual gaps (Zornberg and Blanchot are, effectively, complementary here).

Repetition, time’s magnifier, permits us multiple views of the same period at different points in the six days of creation. Waters can be created seemingly after they already exist, earth can exist in the second verse while created only in the tenth, etc. And, yet, not all coherence is gone as the narrative is delineated from the first day to the seventh.

Here I would add to Philo’s interpretation that, in addition to bestowing order upon the narrative, numbers mark the inexorable passage of time. They provide the rhythm, not only the harmony, that underscores the proceedings. In this way, the history of the universe as portrayed in Genesis may repeat itself, but it repeats itself forward. Indeed, there is no turning back in such a narrative of progressive repetition that achieves unity through fragmentation, evolution through recurrence; a world in which causes and consequences coalesce in evocative temporal bundles rather than follow one another logically.

In this light, then, what underlies an opposition between narration and fragmentation is a deeper dichotomy of narration and enigma, which can be fused via eraisure to forge an anonlinear aesthetic. Consider 1: 27, for example, which relates the creation of the human on the sixth day in a way that reflects the enigmatic temporality of the narrative:

"So God created man in his own image,
in the image of God created he them;
male and female created he them."

This sentence, in which the narrative breaks into verse for the first time to stress its importance,[19] certainly does justice to the mystery in doubling and redoubling, repeating and multiplying, with three variations on the theme of creation and God’s "image" elegantly and literally reflected in the repetition of that word. These repetitions suffuse the verse in such a way that, by the end of the verse, we are aware that the significant creation of humanity took place, but dizzied in the process. The verse sustains the same breath with a triple repetition, generating a lyrical rhythm that circles on itself while forging ahead to emerge with a new creation. The reader’s repeated and regenerating breaths in this verse facilitate the moment, and mirror the broader day-to-day-to-day structure of the myth -- we are participants and witnesses of creation.

Even with the treble magnification of this moment, the text goes on to both expand and particularize it with a lengthier account of the creation of the human in the following chapter. This second version takes place after the creation of the universe without accounting for the prior version on the sixth day, an ostensible "contradiction" that effectively illustrates how Genesis contains multitudes.[20]

Certainly, this recurrence undermines a straightforward conception of the text’s temporality. But, rather than detracting from the story, it provides a parallax that enriches our perception of it. When a moment happens again, in other words, it is a gain that elucidates the narrative precisely by amplifying its inherent enigma. Fused with this nonlinear representation, of course, is a continued linear trajectory. Man, as we know, is created in 2: 7, and woman in 2: 22. Meanwhile, God plants a garden in Eden, and it is now the process of its gradual growth, rather than the numbers of the first chapter, that provides the progressive, linear underscoring of the narrative.

Understanding the temporality of Genesis presents a serious challenge, especially when trying to capture it in translation. Notice the significant differences in the following three English versions of the text’s opening alone:

In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.

 

At the beginning of God’s creating of the heavens and the earth, . . .

 

When God began to create heaven and earth, . . .

Yet, perhaps one of the finest renditions of this intimidatingly complex and celebrated verse comes not from a translator, exegete, or biblical scholar, but from the writer David Markson in the opening line to his novel Wittgenstein’s Mistress:

In the beginning, sometimes I left messages in the street. [22]

The sentence is both beginning and in medias res ("sometimes"), a start that was already happening; and, in initiating this postapocalyptic tale told by a woman who may be earth’s last inhabitant, it is the beginning of the end. It is, furthermore, a remembrance of repeated things past, and, so, in one sentence, a recollected repetition. (Incidentally, will these messages ever reach us, or must we dream them to ourselves when evening falls?) This is also a most fitting start for what turns out to be a quintessentially anonlinear novel. It is composed of quotes, observations, trivia, etc., typed by the nameless female narrator at an average rate of one entry per day, thereby reflecting the steady progression of time; yet, the frequent repetition and reworking of certain entries allows for a deeper exploration of a single moment or motif, sustaining the past in the present, and opening up the possibility for a multidirectional reading that accommodates the equal and opposite forces of repetition and recollection.

The result is a book that can be read and understood forward, backward or in any order (but always with the awareness of an inescapable undercurrent progressing day by day), which, ultimately, undermines the cohesion of the principal forces in the novel: time and the woman. Is time encroaching on the protagonist/narrator with its cumulative weight catalyzing her degeneration into an apparent dementia? Or is time itself being manipulated to contract and expand according to the woman’s state of mind? And she: is she writing or is she being written through – a conduit for cultural history and trivia, an unwitting time capsule? The text, after all, is far more commonplace book than personal memoir.

In this sense, this anonlinear work resembles lines that are anon., composed in anonymity. This is the case with the anonlinear: by opening up the presence of time to reflect the vast expanse of existence, it closes out the authority of a single voice.

I return to Blanchot’s comments on the rhapsodic mode of composition to offer their conclusion: "By means of repetition [the rhapsodic mode] fills in or widens the gaps, opens and closes the fissures by new peripeteia, and finally, by dint of filling the poem out, distends it to the point of volatilization"[23] -- a volatilization that leads to anonymity. Who is speaking, and to what extent is the expression theirs? (This aspect of the anonlinear aesthetic has affected my practical approach to the theatre. Though doubling voices and repeating moments, ostensibly autonomous characters contribute to a more general, cohesive zone of consciousness.)

Ultimately, in an anonlinear framework, time both drives the action externally and is absorbed by it internally, where it can become malleable and unpredictable. Time is without and within the anonlinear work of art. If Time, like the idealized artist described in James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist As a Young Man, is contentedly omniscient, surveying Its creation from great heights while paring down Its fingernails (of Its clock hands, I suppose!), It is, at the same time, overwhelmed and disoriented by Its own creation. Or, to put it another way, Time (of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 116)[24] no longer wields Its bending sickle with impunity, for now It, too, must watch the blade for fear of becoming Its own victim. In a word, the anonlinear work of art is Time consuming. This is precisely what makes the present tense.

Finally, I want to focus on an ingenious book by Rosmarie Waldrop that captures the spirit of the anonlinear: Reluctant Gravities.[25] Composed of 24 poetic "Conversations" between a nameless "she" and "he," the book’s numerical structure is the first indication that it is steeped in temporality, and that, in addition to addressing time, it is very much of it. Twenty-four -- one day, two years -- the number itself is a comment on the expansions and contractions of time according to perception. (Much as Willie’s one barely audible word -- "Win" -- in Act II of Happy Days [page 167], in light of the 52 [weeks] he utters in the previous act, could signify an ambiguous amount of time, an instant or eternity.)

These 24 Conversations, reflecting hours or months, divide into six sections, each (except for the last one) containing four dialogues, and are followed by an "Interlude" of three segments: an abstract "Song" in free verse, a "Meditation" and another "Song." This substructure further reveals how the parcelling of a day’s 24 hours can also convey the space of years with the repeated alternation of four (Conversations) and three (parts of an Interlude) – or the four seasons in a year and three months in a season, or, when added, the seven days in a week.

This is only the beginning of the book’s temporally constructed intricacies: each conversation further divides into four dialogue entries, alternating between what "she says" and "he says," thus involving twos and fours, yet another reflection of 24; in each Interlude, composed of three sections, there are three stanzas to each Song and nine to each Meditation, with the sums and products of these figures generating numbers like 15, 30 and 45, typical units of seconds and minutes; each of the book’s 10 Songs contains 10 lines, thereby producing a century; etc.

Indeed, the unities break down into increasingly specific parts, with each part consistently reflecting the total sum. What becomes abundantly clear is that everything is being counted, and that all is accountable within and under time, a time that is global in its entirety while local in its particularity, increasing in scope precisely through its divisions toward the minute.

Just as time is obviously present on a theoretical level in Reluctant Gravities, it is integral to the actual reading and experiencing of the book, most evidently in the progression of Songs. The first Song in the first Interlude introduces the motif of "a white jug with flowers" (page 19). By the second Interlude the flowers’ petals have dropped, as all are bound to over time, leaving "in a white jug / the stem of a dream" (page 38). The concluding Song of the fourth Interlude, which ends with the following stanza: "little enough / counts the change" (page 70), emphasizes this ongoing, inevitable mutability over time no matter how small the change. This closing line also calls our attention to the impossibility of preserving currency. The small change you count now will only get you by for the moment, since such paltry means are fleeting. Change, in other words, is hard to retain and, therefore, defined by its ephemerality -- its transient nature is all that remains permanent. Once we reach the last line of the last Song, it is clear that the passage of time has left its mark: "the water in the jug evaporated" (page 86). While we were following the book’s Conversations from hour to hour or day to day or month to month, or, you could say, while we did not watch, our flowers turned into stems, and the water that nourished them, left unattended, vanished. As readers, we were so caught up in time that we did not notice it. The similarities here to an untitled poem by Lorine Niedecker are striking:[26]

Something in the water
like a flower
will devour

water

flower

It is as though, through the principal motif of Waldrop’s Songs, Niedecker’s poem has been revived and revised to state that:

Something in the water
like an hour
will devour . . .

The changes just observed in Waldrop’s flower jug become apparent in the book’s Interludes, which are, ostensibly, unnumbered sections. In this sense, it is only once we have stepped out of time that we can observe its effects and count the change it has created, big, small or "little enough." Song, Meditation and Song provide a moment of pause, allowing us to reflect on what has transpired. The Interlude, then, serves as an island in time that contrasts the dialogues to conduce contemplation of the precedings and proceedings. Similarly, in the creation myth of Genesis, the one verse that is actually in verse (1: 27) throws time into relief and elicits reflection on what happened, happens and lies ahead. There is inherent reflection in rhythm, meditation in meter -- this is the strength of poetry.

Surrounding these contemplative lapses, however, time carries on, and the overall movement of Reluctant Gravities, from its natural opening (or birth), with "My mother" (page 9), to its open-ended conclusion, which notes that "the centuries pass intestate" (page 96), reflects time’s advance. With such a palpable essence of temporality, it is no wonder that Reluctant Gravities was published at the dawn of a new era, in the year 1999, and that its final (24th) conversation, which leaves the passing centuries unclaimed, suspended, without a will, is entitled "ON THE MILLENNIUM:" "Because as long as we follow we lag behind, and the centuries pass intestate." As with Waldrop’s book, we take our lead from time.

"We must decipher our lives, he says," reads the second Conversation, "forward and backward" (page 11), as if to prepare us for this structurally and stylistically consistent book, which, because of its similar, repeated patterns, can be read and appreciated in any order, despite its traces of temporal progressions. As a result of this anonlinear condition, the spirit of anonymity asserts its presence from the very beginning, in the Prologue, entitled "TWO VOICES:" "Two voices on a page. Or is it one?" (page 3). Volatilization sets in immediately. Two voices or one? And either way, whose? And, if on the page, then whence these disembodied characters and lines?

Ego, that remorseless impediment to universality, has been cast aside, as have the explicit, direct sentiments of a defined person, in favour of channelling the presence of something far greater. The self’s dissolution lets in the outside world through anonymous lines. Their origin lies not only in the hand and being of Rosmarie Waldrop, but beyond; nor in her husband, the poet Keith Waldrop, to whom the book is dedicated, but beyond; nor is it limited to the spirit of poetry, but beyond, in something greater, more expansive and inclusive where mere individuals dissolve into the universal, the universal that "If we can’t call it God, he says, it still perches on the mind, minting strangeness" (page 12). The mystery endures.


Footnotes

1. Friedrich Schiller. "Eighteenth Letter" in "Letters on the Aesthetic Education of Man." Trans. Elizabeth Wilkinson and L. A. Willoughby. Essays. Walter Hinderer and Daniel Dahlstrom, eds. Continuum International Publishing Group, New York, 1998, pages137—139.

2. I draw this definition from Walter Kaufmann’s translation of Friedrich Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy (1872) (Random House. New York, 1967, page 59), where Kaufmann also notes that aufgehoben was one of G.F.W. Hegel’s favorite concepts. Wilkinson and Willoughby’s translation of the term as "destroyed" in Schiller’s Essays, on the other hand, fails to capture its full meaning.

3. Aristotle. "Poetics." Trans. Ingram Bywater. Introduction to Aristotle. Richard McKeon, ed. The Modern Library. New York, 1947, page 634.

4. BŸ chner’s nonlinear play found its musical counterpart in Alban Berg’s atonal, or 12-tone, opera of the same name in 1925.

5. William S. Burroughs. Naked Lunch. Grove Press. New York, 1991, page 18.

6. John Donne. "An Anatomy of the World: The First Anniversary." The New Oxford Book of Seventeenth Century Verse. Alastair Fowler, ed. Oxford University Press. New York, 1991, page 113:

And freely men confess that this world’s spent,
When in the planets and the firmament
They seek so many new: they see that this
Is crumbled out again t’his atomies.
’Tis all in pieces, all coherence gone;
All just supply, and all relation: . . .

7. Søren Kierkegaard. Fear and Trembling/Repetition. Howard Hong and Edna Hong, eds. and trans. Princeton University Press. New Jersey, 1983, page131 (Hereafter abbreviated as Repetition).

8. Samuel Beckett. Complete Dramatic Works. Faber and Faber Ltd. London, 1986, pages135—168. (Hereafter abbreviated as HD).

9. Franz Kafka. "An Imperial Message." Trans. Willa Muir and Edwin Muir. The Complete Stories. Nahum Glatzer, ed. Schocken Books. New York, 1971, pages 4—5.

10. Paul Celan. "Speech on the Occasion of Receiving the Literature Prize of the Free Hanseatic City of Bremen." Selected Poems and Prose of Paul Celan. Trans. John Felstiner. W.W. Norton and Company. New York, 2001, page 396.

11. "Prose Fragment 30" quoted in Susan Howe’s My Emily Dickinson (North Atlantic Books. Berkeley, 1985, page 23.

12. John Gregg. Introduction to Maurice Blanchot’s L’attente l’oubli [Awaiting oblivion] (1962). Trans. John Gregg. University of Nebraska Press. Lincoln, 1997, page vii. (Hereafter abbreviated as Ao.)

13. Maurice Blanchot. The Infinite Conversation. Trans. Susan Hanson. University of Minnesota Press. Minneapolis and London, 1993, p. 390. Quoted by John Gregg. Introduction to Awaiting oblivion, p. xv. For a remarkable musical illustration of the "rhapsodic mode," teeming with repetitions and variations and peripeteia, there is, perhaps, no better piece to listen to than the Rhapsody in B Minor (Opus 79, No.1) by Brahms, especially as played by Radu Lupu.

14. "Truth is not the disclosure that annihilates the mystery but rather the revelation that does justice to it."

15. Maurice Blanchot. Death Sentence. Trans. Lydia Davis. Station Hill Press. Barrytown, 1978, page 46.

16. King James Bible. All subsequent bible quotations are from the King James version unless indicated otherwise.

17. Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg. The Beginning of Desire: Reflections on Genesis. Doubleday. New York, 1995, page 35. (Hereafter abbreviated as Zornberg.)

18. Philo (Judaeus) of Alexandria. "On the Account of the World’s Creation Given by Moses." Greek and Roman Philosophy After Aristotle. Jason L. Saunders, trans. and ed. Free Press. New York, 1966, page 203. (Hereafter abbreviated as Philo.)

19. Everett Fox, trans. and commentary. The Five Books of Moses: A New Translation with Introductions, Commentary, and Notes. Schocken Books. New York, 1995, page 15.

20. A notion that Walt Whitman boldly and famously asserts in "Song of Myself:"

Do I contradict myself?
Very well then . . . I contradict myself;
I am large . . . I contain multitudes.

21. Robert Alter. Genesis: Translation and Commentary. W.W. Norton and Company. New York, 1997.

22. David Markson. Wittgenstein’s Mistress. Dalkey Archive Press. Normal, 1988.

23. Maurice Blanchot. The Infinite Conversation. Trans. Susan Hanson. University of Minnesota Press. Minneapolis and London, 1993, p. 390. Quoted by John Gregg. Introduction to Awaiting oblivion, p. xv.

24. "Let me not to the marriage of true minds . . ." "Time" appears in the third quatrain:

"Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks

Within his bending sickle’s compass come."

25. Rosmarie Waldrop. Reluctant Gravities. New Directions Publishing Corporation. New York, 1999.

26. "Untitled poem" from North Central. Fulcrum Press. London, 1968. Reprinted in The Granite Pail: The Selected Poems of Lorine Niedecker. Cid Corman, ed. Gnomon Press. Frankfort, 1996, page 50.


Adam Seelig, born in Vancouver, is a poet, playwright, and stage director now living in Toronto. His recent play, All Is Almost Still, premiered in 2004 at the 78th Street Theatre Lab in New York. Talking Masks, a new play, is forthcoming. Seelig has recently directed the English-language premieres of radio plays by Yehuda Amichai in New York and Toronto, and is currently translating more of Amichai’s dramatic works. Seelig’s writings appear in Modern Drama, World Literature Today and Saul Bellow’s The Republic of Letters. He is the founder and artistic director of One Little Goat Theatre Company.

 

 

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