Reading the Minds of Events:
Leslie Scalapino’s Plural Time
In a stream of reassuring
argument the memory
forms a flight of steps
swinging out over the
Narrative is neither an oppressor to be obliterated nor the validating force of all literary impulse.
One of Leslie Scalapino’s primary concerns in her poetry is to question conventional ways of thinking about time in relation to event, experience, memory, and narrative. Her work relentlessly interrogates narrativistic categories and exposes essentialist ways of thinking about time and memory. Scalapino does not deny narrative’s causal and sequential linkage of events as a phenomenon in its own right. Instead, she uses narrative to question commonly accepted immanences within its framework.
Unlike some work in the experimental literary realm with which she is associated, Scalapino’s poetry seems at first blush referentially and syntactically normative—or at least much of it is not so disjunctive that the reader cannot discern an underlying conventional sentence structure. People, events and objects often seem to be situated in a specific time and place, even though that place might not be described with many details. Indeed, the tone of her poetry can seem flat and stark, particularly to those unaccustomed to reading her work or unfamiliar with her philosophical project. The work seems to lack dimensions that might lend it the texture, feeling, or depth to which readers are accustomed in more conventionally descriptive or narrative writing. In her poetry, people sometimes seem faceless; activity takes place without psychologized or emotional drama; poetic sequences often omit a definite temporal or spatial orientation (instead, things seem to exist and occur in relation to all other things); and boundaries between self and other, public and private, past and present are everywhere transgressed. In addition, the iteration of actions or images in varying contexts gives the work a radically unfamiliar quality.
It is just this feeling of an unfamiliar mental terrain that Scalapino constructs in order to demonstrate the illusions of hierarchy that conventional structuring of language can create and to show how this hierarchy influences the interpretation of one’s experience. For example, conventional narratives tend to place events along a temporal echelon of past, present, and future and to impose a structure of causality on events and phenomena. These temporal and causal conventions structure events and thought so that “activity and time per se” become “a condition of tradition.” Thus “both time and activity are a ‘lost mass’ at any time,” 3 and experience is drained of the kind of intelligibility that Scalapino associates with the non-hierarchical and simultaneous presentation of past, present, and future.
In her writing, Scalapino attempts to imitate experience, as opposed to representing it according to a preestablished order, and to allow the multiple layers that create the memory of a single event to exist simultaneously without structuring them in an arrangement of prominence, causality, or in a psychologized drama. She reveals the simplest and most mundane of events to be instances of “social and interior constructions.” 4 She thereby demonstrates the radically impermanent nature of these events once they are no longer abstracted from present experience and attached to a constructed temporal order within a narrative or linked by allusion to other histories. She avoids the emblematic and descriptive framing of experience and resists the coalescing of experience into ordered wholes. Instead, her writing allows events (including memories themselves as events) to exist dependent upon one another, while avoiding the temptation to reify or essentialize experience. For when we attribute intrinsic existence to the phenomena of events, perceptions, or thoughts, it can seem deceptively natural to shape those phenomena into a conventional order whose relationship to the world seems transparent, inevitable, and even preordained. Scalapino chooses a more difficult kind of writing that critiques the construction of hierarchical dualities of inner and outer being, private and public experience, and the representation of events in time. She critiques the effects of such ordering by means of blurring conventional categories of existence and action in time and space.
In the relentless thoroughness with which Scalapino attempts to dissolve putative boundaries separating dualistic realms, attribute a radical impermanence to all phenomena, and critique any last vestige of essence and immanence, her poetry resonates with certain strains of Eastern thought, and in particular with the thought of the ancient Buddhist philosopher and poet Nāgārjuna. Scalapino’s sympathetic reading of the philosophical verses of Nāgārjuna is evident not only in some of her essays but also in much of her poetry. My purpose in this essay is to show Scalapino’s treatment of the phenomena of time, memory, and event in her poetry by analyzing three works: a poem from the series “The Woman Who Could Read the Minds of Dogs,” a brief passage from New Time, and “bum series” from Way. I will also demonstrate the close affinity between the underlying philosophy of Scalapino’s poetry and Nāgārjuna’s philosophy of the Middle Way.
Before elaborating on the influence of Eastern philosophy on Scalapino’s work, let us first read an early poem from the sequence “The Woman Who Could Read the Minds of Dogs.” Doing so will place in poetic context her concern with the relation between experience and the memory of past events, a theme that she continues to explore in subsequent books. A close reading of “on itself. His red hair was standing up) ‘I just began to weep’.” reveals how intertwined events and memories function within the poem to produce a feeling of temporal disorientation, and how the poem’s syntactical idiosyncrasies work in tandem with the content. 5 Here is the poem:
on itself. His red hair was standing up) “I just began to weep”.
Much later, after I had ceased to know the man who had once
described to me how , driving his new car with its top down
around and around the block (with his 1st wife in the car—
he said that he had been downtown with her drinking in a bar) ,
while he was looking for the entrance to the hotel parking lot ,
he had collided, or rather, had grazed the sides of 3 parked
cars ; as I said, it was much later when I was standing
on the jetty of a marina and watching a man standing up in
a motor boat, while he turned it around and around in circles.
“Well, (I remembered the man I had known saying about himself
—as I watched the man in the motor boat turning it slowly
on itself. His red hair was standing up) “I just began to weep”. 6
Like many of the individual poems in “The Woman Who Could Read the Minds of Dogs,” “on itself” presents a narrative within a narrative. In the first of these, the speaker relates a story told to her by a friend in which he, driving with his first wife and circling around the block trying to find the entrance to a hotel parking lot, sideswipes three parked cars in the process. After this, he “just began to weep.” The speaker then relates a second incident, in which she sees a man in a motor boat going around in circles. In the second incident, her experience of seeing the circling boat reminds her of her friend’s story of circling in his car. The main common element in the two stories is the circular motion of the boat and car.
Scalapino juxtaposes these two events and also conflates them through syntactical structures that disorient the reader’s sense of their discrete nature. In order to demonstrate how the syntax works to create a distinctive sensibility in regard to time, memory and experience, it may be helpful first to analyze the layers of time that overlap and spill into each other. There are five identifiable layers, in which (in chronological order):
1) a man and his first wife circle around a block in a car
2) the speaker hears the man tell of his experience in the car
3) the speaker sees a man circling in a boat
4) Scalapino writes the poem
5) the reader reads Scalapino’s poem
The list does not include events of remembrance, in which, for example, the man remembers his experience in the car, the speaker remembers the man telling of his experience in the car, and so forth. Such events of memory exist in potential infinitude.
The poem opens with the third time frame in which the speaker, standing on the jetty of a marina, sees a man in a boat going in circles: “Much later, after I had ceased to know the man who had once / described to me how , driving his new car . . .” (emphasis added). The poem immediately switches to its two prior events: the man tells the speaker of circling in the car with his first wife, and prior to that, the event of circling around the block takes place. Midway through the poem, the speaker returns to the marina incident: “as I said, it was much later when I was standing / on the jetty of a marina . . .” In a parenthetical exegesis toward the end, Scalapino juxtaposes the three in simultaneity: “‘Well’, (I remembered the man I had known saying about himself /—as I watched the man in the motor boat turning it slowly / on itself. His red hair was standing up) ‘I just began to weep’.” By withholding syntactic closure and suspending the emotional gesture toward which the poem seems to be leading (“I just began to weep”), the whole poem seems like one long periodic sentence. The long subordinate and independent clauses, parenthetical interruptions, and grammatical solecisms are not resolved until the very end. However, unlike the formal result that might be expected of a sentence that is structured hierarchically, the effect of this periodic sentence that is more than the resolution of its parts is not order but temporal disorientation; one’s sense of time, place, and point of view is dislocated, suspended. The poem’s syntactical complexity and elliptical twists confound the events of narration and memory so that a sort of temporal reciprocity occurs among them: the playing field on which time, event, memory unfold is leveled. Furthermore, the superimposition of several narrative strands creates momentary confusion and produces a plurality of time frames. Thus the nature of historical events as discretely communicable phenomena is placed under question.
If the dispersed sense of time and the syntactical ambiguities reticulate experience and memory rather than centralize it, they also move toward convergence, if not resolution. First, a simultaneity of events is suggested by the syntactical overlapping of the imagined time, the recalled time, and the current time. Second, there is a convergence of coinciding elements within the narratives; its topology resembles the converging of tributaries into one commingling and transformed river. Following the description of the man in the boat, the impetus of a linear narrative would logically be expected to continue in the context of the speaker and that man. The final gesture of weeping, although belonging semantically and originally to the man circling in his car, is attributable also to the speaker. If one disregards the parenthetical remark and the quotation marks in the last three lines, which refer to the context of the man in the car:
“Well”, (I remembered the man I had known saying about himself
—as I watched the man in the motor boat turning it slowly
on itself. His red hair was standing up) “I just began to weep”. [Emphasis added.]
the syntactical inertia indeed impels us toward a weeping speaker, and by transference, to Scalapino and to the reader. The repetition of “standing” in reference to both the speaker and the man (“I was standing / on the jetty of a marina and watching a man standing up in / a motor boat . . . His red hair was standing up”) further implicates the speaker and the man in the boat in the same gesture, therefore facilitating the transference of “weeping” from the man to the speaker. Nevertheless, although weeping constitutes the emotional crux of the poem, the temporal disjunctures and clausal ambiguities result in the text’s resistance to the stabilization of the locus of the weeping and to the centrality of that emotional response.
These simultaneous movements of divergence, reticulation and convergence generate much of the tension and instability of the poem. They also suggest metaphorically the schism between event and narrative; the associative infinity that, through the fractured (and fracturing) self, destabilizes the discrete historical event we know through conventional wisdom; and the coincidence (as in the simultaneity of “weeping”) of recreated events through that association.
Scalapino is concerned to demonstrate a rupture between phenomena and our perception and memory of them, and ruptures between successive remembrances of a particular past event: “Perception itself is phenomena,” 7 and Scalapino is careful to distinguish between an event and the perceptual interpretation of that event. She is also concerned to demonstrate the same principle regarding writing as phenomenon. A consideration of the implied time frame of the writer further demonstrates this phenomenon of contradictory motions. First, the writing of narrative inherently exhibits the rupture between the writing and the event narrated: “The camera lens of writing is the split between oneself and reality. Which one sees first—view of dying and life—is inside, looking out into untroubled ‘experience.’” 8 Writing creates both a distancing from and a transformation of experience, in which the writer makes visible what was concealed. Scalapino’s writing of history involves the interplay among moments remote in time, as well as between those moments and the associations spawned by them in the speaker’s mind (and by extension, the reader’s mind). Such interplay, in a potentially infinite network recreating the past, is made accessible and public. The mind as creator of events and the writer as recorder of a thus pluralized history constitute the true narrative, for “No events occur. Because these are in the past. They don’t exist.” 9
Lastly, there is the time frame of the poem’s reader, who also participates in and reconstructs the events of the narrative. In a phrase that echoes reader response theories, Scalapino writes, “Reading as imposing syntax, is creating reality as imposition on a formation of one’s thoughts and actions,” and again, “reading impos[es] a reality on us.” 10 For Scalapino, the reader recreates recorded events as they collide with his or her own remembered narratives, transforming them in the process into narrative phenomena in their own right.
The actual and mnemonic events in “on itself” do not seem to lead to climax and closure as is often the case in conventional narrative, but rather these events suggest an infinite network of possible junctures and intersections of narratives. The coincidence of narratives suggests a circuity in events that “come up as the same sound pattern.” 11Scalapino’s poem reveals and expands meaning through the network of juxtaposed narratives. And through correspondences in thematic material, she explores the interplay of experience, memory, and written history. Scalapino would claim that events do not exist—other than as they are recreated and associated in the mind.
She also addresses the inevitable lament that if events do not exist, then humans are forever alienated from any meaningful experience of reality. This would be the case, however, only in a philosophy founded on the possibility of epistemological certitude. Scalapino recovers experience by positing observation or “attention of itself as an activity,” 12 which is different from approaching experience with a drive for accurate or certain knowledge, and viewing the result of experience as a body of perceptional and mnemonic data that one possesses as a storehouse of one’s own experience. Instead, one attends to the process of observation, which is an event of attention, or as Scalapino has it, “watching as being itself action.” 13
In her more recent writings, Scalapino acknowledges that she has been greatly influenced by traditions of eastern philosophy, and in particular by the writings of the early Indian Buddhist philosopher and poet Nāgārjuna, who lived approximately during the second century C.E. Nāgārjuna founded the Mādhyamika (Middle Path) schools of Mahāyāna Buddhism. His longest and most significant text is the Mūlamadhyamakakārikā (translated by Jay L. Garfield as The Fundamental Verses of the Middle Way). 14 The influence of Nāgārjuna’s systematic revelation of the emptiness of all conceptual, nominal, and conventional categories is evident in Scalapino’s thinking about the dispelling of conceptual illusions. 15 Given the influence of Nāgārjuna’s philosophy on Scalapino’s work, it will be useful to present a summary of some principal doctrines in his unrelenting critique of ontological and epistemological categories. 16
In the Mūlamadhyamakakārikā, Nāgārjuna speaks of two realities or categories of truth. Conventional or nominal truth refers to the human conceptual framework. This is the quotidian reality that is shaped by social consent, the reality of common sense observation whose categories and referents seem accurate enough to our human judgment. We accept this everyday truth in order to get on in the world without spending an undue amount of time making simple decisions. Conventional existence, in this philosophy, is dependent upon the referential nature of language. However, Nāgārjuna argues that this conventional and nominal reality, while extremely useful, and while existing on a practical level, does not correspond to an independent reality. 17 Ultimate truth, on the other hand, is reality free of subjectivity, free of the linguistic constructions through which we interpret our perceptions of objects and events. It is independent of the perceptual and conceptual reality that always mediates human knowledge of the world. It denotes “the way things turn out to be when we subject them to analysis with the intention of discovering the nature they have from their own side, as opposed to the characteristics we impute to them.” 18 This truth can never be known from its side, but only through our perceptions of it. By means of an exhaustive and rigorous analysis, Nāgārjuna attempts to dispel every shred of illusion regarding the inherent existence of any category of reality, including emptiness itself. Emptiness cannot be upheld as a reality that is less empty than human categories, an essential void that stands beyond the pale of conventional reality. It is, like all other categories, itself empty, part of the nature of conventional reality. And it is the emptiness of emptiness that for Nāgārjuna is the link that keeps the two mutually contradictory realms in relation to one another, and that in fact explains their paradoxical unity. He demonstrates that the two realities are in a subtle, paradoxical and dependent relationship to one another.
Nāgārjuna suggests that “what counts as real depends precisely on our conventions,” 19 yet he goes to great pains to demonstrate the emptiness of those conventions. And even emptiness has no inherent or independent existence, but is itself empty. To see an object as empty (of inherent or essential existence) is to see it as dependently arisen and as conventional reality. Any object “depends upon the existence of empty phenomena,” therefore “emptiness itself is empty.” 20 And for Nāgārjuna, the doctrine of the emptiness of emptiness is inextricably interwoven with the doctrine of the deep identity between the two truths of conventional reality and ultimate reality. Our interpretations of the world are ultimately empty of essence, and yet because emptiness is itself also a dependently arising phenomenon, it is also empty.
Nāgārjuna’s Buddhism is not nihilistic in its denunciation of inherent existence. He does not intend to imply that reality is nothing at all, an absolute void without matter or shape. Instead, “the actuality of the entire phenomenal world, persons and all, is recovered within that emptiness.” 21 When he speaks of the lack of existence, he speaks of what we might call “essence” or “inherent existence,” that is, an existence with properties apart from human attribution of a bounded entity with properties, as if there were a direct correspondence between language and the object it describes. Morality and salvation are just as crucial to Nāgārjuna’s philosophy as his emphasis on pervasive emptiness. For Nāgārjuna, the recovery of the former is, paradoxically, dependent upon a full understanding of the latter. His critique of inherent existence insistently breaks down all conventional and nominal categories, which impose hierarchies and attributes that humans often come to believe as fixed and stable. His philosophy is one of radical impermanence and emptiness, yet it is also profoundly concerned with morality.
Thus Nāgārjuna’s philosophy is not dualistic, nor is it nihilistic. The doctrine of emptiness is closely interwoven with the doctrine of the identity of the two truths or realities, and within this doctrine is recovered a strongly soteriological and moral ground. For, Nāgārjuna’s logic goes, with an essential or inherent nature, how could one hope to effect the change necessary to become enlightened?
The brief explanation above offers an overview of some important points within Nāgārjuna’s complex and subtle argumentation in the twenty-seven verses of the Mūlamadhyamakakārikā. For my purposes, one of the most important features of his philosophy of the middle way is the holding of two contradictory truths at one time (their radical difference), and the simultaneous erasing of the boundaries between them (their deep identity). Nāgārjuna does not set “ultimate reality” on a pedestal as the more important of the two realities, but instead seems to keep the two in perpetual tension, mutually informing one another in a relationship of balanced dependence and dialogue.
Scalapino’s reading of Nāgārjuna profoundly influenced her thought and work, which engages in a critique of essentialized thinking about phenomena, and invites the reader to consider the ultimate emptiness of our constructions and interpretations and to realize that “all phenomena and perception are groundless.” 22 The poetry that she values
articulates a critique of ‘one’s assumptions’ (one’s observation, or of perception itself as cultural) by perceiving or rendering perception as being without basis. At the same time, this examination of subjectivity in fact can work as a critique and revelation of our culture.
In other words, by undercutting the observer, one has a perspective of place that is both spatially ‘interior’ and ‘outside’—a relativity. 23
“The observer” to be undercut is the idea of the individual’s unique perspective on reality and his or her unawareness of that perspective as socially and individually constructed—in other words, its status as a category that, in Nāgārjuna’s sense, is empty of inherent or transcendental quality. “The deconstruction of our view of reality is oneself in one time not maintaining either one’s own subjective view or the social or phenomenological interpretation of occurrences. Nor is this ‘not holding a view.’” 24 Instead, one must maintain a “perspective of place” that is simultaneously interior and exterior, aware of the mediation of one’s perception yet also attempting “to find out what’s there, as occurrence.” 25 Perception may indeed be empty, “without basis”; however, its critique is paradoxically arrived at through the very nominal categories called empty. And thus this very practical vehicle of the critique is not devalued in relation to ultimate reality.
In Scalapino’s view, neither the phenomenon itself nor its apprehension by the mind has inherent existence. 26 She attempts to demonstrate this in her writing through her treatment of narrative, which dismantles sequential events by showing that narrative as well as one’s sense of the discrete division of time into past, present, and future has no basis outside our conceptual framework. 27 On the other hand, her work does not try to demonstrate the inferiority of narrative. To the contrary, she paradoxically investigates narrative through narrative and imagines a presentation of phenomena unfolding in time that is radically different from the conventionally linear ordering of events that are held together by the glue of causality and intentionality. Thus she criticizes “[t]he contemporary poetic-polemics association of ‘narrative’ as being only convention—‘experience’ thus denigrated, not regarded as exploratory,” for this position “in fact does not allow scrutiny of one’s own polemic.” 28 If avant-garde poets see their task as being only the dismantling and denigration of conventional constructs of time and narrative sequence, then they deny from the outset the very thing that is crucial to a dialectical development of their critique. What is needed is a dialogue between the natural and human impulses to link events in a narrative sequence and the recognition of the emptiness of that linkage from the standpoint of extrasubjective reality—Nāgārjuna’s ultimate reality. And that critique, according to Scalapino, must also include self-scrutiny.
An examination of passages from two of her works demonstrates her “middle way” of conceptualizing events occurring in time and the process of remembering and recording them. New Time, a recent book-length work by Scalapino, effectively demonstrates some of the notions that have been a constant concern in her poetry and poetics. 29 In this work, she also makes expressively clear the political implications of one’s attitude toward such categories as history and narrative. New Time is a long meditation on how time might be thought if one were to dispense with many of the hierarchies that one takes for granted in the experience of actions and thoughts and in the writing of these events. If one is to dispel one’s illusions of the inherent existence of memories and their correspondence to actual events in a continually receding present moment, then one must realize the extent to which language shapes one’s interpretations of perceptions. 30
For Scalapino, writing itself is an event that is as remote from a past event as one’s memory of it. According to her, writing about an event does not have a causal relationship to the event itself, which also has no inherent existence since it is in the past. Writing about an event (like thinking about an event) is an event itself, a new time in its own right, a present experience that attempts to recall a nonexistent event yet is tinged with all other events perceived since the experience of the event that prompted the writing: “Remembering everything, all layers at the same time, writing is the mind’s operations per se and imitation of it at the same time.” 31 Herein lie two meanings of “new time”: it is at once a new way of conceptualizing time as well as a guide for a more zen-like experiencing of the “new time” of the present moment.
In her discussion of her play The Present, Scalapino describes this phenomenon of writing as a means of revealing the mind in the act of structuring reality yet also as a means of creating its own reality. In the play, the characters speak their actions as well as enact them. These verbalized and acted movements are followed later by “sequences of observation or discursive commentary,” which are “spoken and also shown as handwritten phrases on slides.” The separation of the passages of action and those of conceptualization causes these obverse phenomena “to collapse becoming one—always being separate. It is ‘as if’ we’re seeing and reading mind structuring.” The events are simultaneously related (they “becom[e] one”) and individuated (“always being separate”). 32 The boundaries between event, conceptualization, and writing (narrative) are collapsed at the same time that each of these phenomena is held to be a discrete event in its own right. Conceptualizing events by verbalizing or writing them tends to cause one to blur the boundaries between narrative and event, as if one is reliving a phenomenon that somehow still exists through the recreation of it. The artifice of narrative obscures the speaking and writing of an event as events themselves: “Writing not having any relation to event/being it—by being exactly its activity. It’s the ‘same thing’ as life (syntactically)—it is life. It has to be or it’s nothing.” Writing is both an imitation of the motion of the mind (and indeed, of perception itself) constructing and categorizing and associating events, and an event, a motion, an activity, in its own right. Scalapino’s writing
inverts the insight that social constructions are always necessarily mediated through language . . ., suggesting instead that these vehicles of mediation are themselves the central constituents of experience—hence the text becomes the act. Scalapino asks that the reader acknowledge that the text doesn’t simply represent reality for us (albeit in an ideologically governed way) but produces a reality on its own terms. (emphasis in original) 33
Scalapino writes the mental terrain as experience and reveals the process by which we construct that terrain. This process renders us more consciously aware of the rupture between an event and its interpretation or imitation in writing, as well as of the phenomenon of writing as life.
New Time, like many of Scalapino’s previous works, is in the form of a series of short blocks of text. Each block in the series consists of one or more paragraphs. Here is the first block:
there’s still on the rim of night (having been in it) which is (in night) there as his horizontal lying rest in snow—breathing in breath ‘at’ the light day
overwhelming the mark being ‘by’ his ‘action’—there—only. one’s—only breathing in breath—not night or day.
past cold, the man kneeling in snow—outside, one—which is horizontal waiting—in ‘falling snow’ overwhelming of the mark, the other being in it—only. as being the only overwhelming of rim.
that he’s—‘running’—by being forward ‘lying’ which is waiting (outside): ‘by’—on the ground in rim of snow dropping on sky and floor only. 34
In this brief and rather disorienting episode are encapsulated some of the thematic materials that undergo many permutations during the course of the sequence, giving the impression of an infinity of possible recontextualizations. The whole does not have a conventional climactic narrative shape, but instead proceeds incrementally and elaborationally. Its line of development is not a trajectory moving toward a goal but an investigation in a psychologically flattened field in which neither the outside¬ realm of discursive, socially sanctioned language nor the interior language of individual subjectivity are allowed to settle into anything resembling a conventional descriptive or historical account. Instead, interior and exterior states of being are allowed to become blurred, to commingle and to critique one another so that the language of neither individual psychology nor the larger political and social realm can be reified or seen as having an essential or separate existence. Nor can the recounting of events be construed as uncomplicated history. Instead, the writing posits itself as phenomenon and tends to resist at every successive reading any stable interpretation. Its structure and syntactical displacements complicate dualities of time, perception, and history, and destabilize hierarchical formation.
The setting, point of view, and action in time can only be described in plural and provisional terms. The time of day shifts so that the passage, taken as a whole, does not clearly seem to take place at either night or day, dawn or dusk. Or rather, it is all of these and thus also none of them. It is a place and time “on the rim”; the time is “not night or day” but instead a state between darkness and light, night and day, action and rest, subjective and objective, inside and outside. This middle ground state is reminiscent of Nāgārjuna’s formulation of the middle way in the Mādhyamika school of Buddhism. It is a state on the cusp that is empty of determinable coherence, yet that is continually “overflowing the mark,” its significance overdetermined at every turn as various themes and events are repeatedly recontextualized and perceived in different time frames. This state recalls Scalapino’s description of “a relativity” in which both inside and outside, past and present, can occur simultaneously. Scalapino acknowledges the hierarchy imposed by interpretation and conceptual categorization and posits a new time that exists not as a reflection of the past or a reference to the future: “[New Time] is ‘about’ time in that a new time occurs outside as being the present moment ‘then,’ which is separate from either the text or the interaction between the people (and separate from the interaction between one’s reading and one’s present mind) but arising ‘between’ these.” 35 In this rather difficult passage, Scalapino theorizes an in-between state of apprehending the new time. This temporality is not equivalent to any of the discrete time frames associated with an event, the recording of the event as written text, the performance of the event for an audience, or the reading about the event by an individual. It is not the occurrence of any of these phenomena alone as somehow representing any other occurrence, yet it is also all of them. It is a temporality outside them (not restricted to a point of view) and also between them. It is a temporality not separate from the event.
In the text, dawn and dusk are interchangeable; their relatedness consists in the fact of their having both once been in the present, and their recurrence as a phenomenon of the writer’s and reader’s experience of the text, occurring with no basis for intrinsic reference: “Dawn is at the same time as dusk ‘as’ present time. Syntax ‘there’ (of the text) is relational as if a ‘time’ of . . . muscular physical motion. . . . It is a ‘time’ not as speech or sound per se—but as the reader’s experience of simultaneous relating and dis-connection only. There is ‘to be’ no basis.” 36 Scalapino posits timeframes (dawn and dusk) as syntactical constructions and shows their relation to the actual “muscular” events of physical movements as one of dissociation. Yet they are also related in the mind in the experience of the reader. The experiences of “relating and dis-connection” are, paradoxically, simultaneous, with no hierarchical positioning between them.
Scalapino posits a radical critique of rationality at its earliest, most elemental inception—the moment of perception and the incipient work of the brain to interpret perceived phenomena, including that of reading a text. Indeed, “Perception itself is phenomena,” just as the perceived event is a phenomenon:
My focus is on non-hierarchical structure in writing. For example, the implications of time as activity—the future being in the past and present, these times separate and going on simultaneously, equally active . . . suggest a non-hierarchical structure in which all times exist at once. And occur as activity without excluding each other. 37
. . . . .
(My) intention—in poetry—is to get complete observing at the same instant (space) as it being the action.
There’s no relation between events and events. Any. They are separate. Events that occur—(regardless of their interpretation—). (But also that they are at once only their interpretation and only their occurrence.) 38
The repetition of the word “only” in the opening of New Time suggests just this separation of events through the emptiness of their causality. In other words, events are separate because no matter what spin we put on the causal relationship between them, they are, according to Nāgārjuna’s category of “ultimate truth,” free of subjectivity, perspective, linguistic construction, interpretations, and intentions. But as Scalapino hastens to add, since the reality of our interpretations and nominal attributions are not to be denied or negated, and since we have only perception and thought with which to judge existence, events are simultaneously our interpretation of them. Scalapino’s is not a nihilistic universe but instead one in which perception has been radically de-hierarchicalized and critiqued in order to realize its merely apparent essential correspondence with exterior reality:
A phenomenon hasn’t inherent existence—as it is not based on a single moment of a mind, nor on successive moments of a mind, as such moments arise dependently (don’t exist inherently, not being that phenomenon itself—though appearing to be). In other words, the apprehension or the ‘moment’ of the mind appears to be the phenomenon itself, which the mind itself is seeing. Neither exists inherently. 39
The “onlyness” of events, which I take Scalapino to mean the emptiness of causality between events, is similar to Nāgārjuna’s (and more generally, the Buddhist) doctrine of “dependent co-origination.” Nāgārjuna rigorously deconstructs the notion of any phenomena’s inherent or independent existence. Our perceptions may convincingly persuade us of their identity with their object, of their direct and correspondence with an independent reality. However,
An existent entity (mental episode)
Has no object.
Since a mental episode is without an object,
How could there be any percept-condition? 40
Our perception posits no direct correspondence to phenomena; instead, our perceptions give the illusion that what we see gives us knowledge about the actual object, knowledge that corresponds directly to that object. What we perceive is, in effect, the mind seeing its interpretation of what is out there. According to this view, our experience is dependent upon interpretations of perceptions, which are dependent upon the structure and functions of our body, including its production of language, and its interactions with other bodies and phenomena. 41 Nothing within or without human existence has permanent, inherent, essential, or independent qualities. The aim of a conceptualization of perception based on dependent co-origination is to yield a view of reality freed of the illusions of a model of direct correspondence and simultaneously to posit the ultimate emptiness of such dualisms as inner and outer, public and private, subject and object. For each term of a duality is contained within the other, indeed in a sense is the other and is dependent upon the other, without, however, necessitating a causal link between them in which the one somehow inherently brings about or influences the other. Scalapino suggests the emptiness of this causal link above when she states that “[t]here’s no relation between events and events.” As we have seen, Nāgārjuna posits a deep identity between the doctrines of conventional and ultimate reality, opposed doctrines that at first introduction to his philosophy might seem like a definitively dualistic formulation.
For Scalapino, writing that attempts to capture one’s memory of experiences in descriptive detail or narrative and causal links can perpetuate illusions about the ways that we actually perceive, encode, and recall phenomena. Her project is instead the persistent disillusionment of notions regarding any notion of permanent or essential nature of experience, memory, and perspective. Our interpretation of phenomena depends upon our perception and memory, and Scalapino goes to these roots of cognition to investigate how we formulate and come to believe in mnemonic illusions. Her process demonstrates the constructed, impermanent, and creative nature of memory. To alter Heraclitus’ maxim slightly, she demonstrates that one is never able to step into the same mnemonic river twice. This phenomenon is what Scalapino refers to when she says that
A segment in the poem is the actual act or event itself—occurring long after it occurred; or acts put into it which occurred more recently. They somehow come up as the same sound pattern.
The self is unraveled as an example in investigating particular historical events, which are potentially infinite. 42
The text itself is an event that reenacts the prior event it records, and intersects or collides with other “acts which occurred more recently.” Indeed, events related by the speaker become interrelated moments that exist in potential infinitude in the mind. Such recreated and recreating events are exposed through the unraveling of the self in the writing of these moments.
Thus Scalapino does not negate the convention of narrative, which would lead to a dualistic position not admitting dialogue between conventional or nominal reality and an imagined reality empty of the subjective creation of categories and temporalities. Instead, her work engages both realities in a dialogue that acknowledges narrative convention and its illusions. Her work leads the reader to become hyper-aware of the artificiality of the tenses and causalities that one constructs in narrating events and of the illusory nature of the project of reproducing events linguistically, so that one feels that the words somehow intrinsically correspond with or attach to a phenomenon. To recall an event is, according to Scalapino, its own event. This notion is a truism within cognitive science. As neuroscientist Richard Cytowic states,
memory . . . is a creative process during which the state of the brain’s electrical fields change. The sensory cortices generate a distinct pattern for each act of recognition and recall, with no two ever exactly the same. They are close enough to cause the illusion that we understand and have seen the event before, although this is never quite true. Each time we recall something it comes tainted with the circumstances of the recall. When it is recalled again, it carries with it a new kind of baggage, and so on. So each act of recognition and recall is a fresh, creative process and not merely a retrieval of some fixed item from storage. 43
Even though humans often have the illusion of thinking of memory as a simple process of retrieval of stored information, and that each time a memory is recalled it is a faithful repetition of the first time it was recalled, this is not the case. As far as memory is concerned, there is no such thing as repetition. And this phenomenon of the fundamental non-identity of events and memory goes to the heart of Scalapino’s revision of notions of narrativity.
Considering her emphasis on the radical impermanence as well as the emptiness of essence at the heart of any narrative endeavor, it is fitting that her work never arrives at a stasis but instead constantly produces a paradoxical relationship between its narrativistic and anti-narrativistic impulses, that is, between passages that describe phenomena and those elements that disrupt such description. Scalapino is not engaged in a denial of story. Indeed, within her works she tells many stories. Rather, she is concerned in her work to level the field that includes an actual event and the narrative that describes it so that they occupy more or less equal regions on a plane, so to speak. Each is a phenomenon in its own right, and each has properties of impermanence and the lack of an essence that can be fixed temporally or semantically. And neither is subordinate to the other: narrative is not subordinate to the event that it attempts to mimetically reproduce, and the event is not subordinate to a notion of a lasting monument of its description. Instead, Scalapino shows the two terms to be mutually dependent: they are in constant dialogue with one another, interrogating one another’s position so that neither is seen as predominant or superior to the other.
One point that is crucial to the consideration of Scalapino’s project of questioning our conceptual habits of structuring time is that cognitive science prioritizes motion before time. No matter how we express ideas of time, they are always dependent upon the particular kind of metaphor used, and it is misleading and fallacious to reify what were conceptual metaphors in the first place. In her works, Scalapino often isolates motion and merges time frames, as if time were not an outwardly reified entity passing along a linear continuum (a metaphorical conceptualization), but something created and recreated inwardly, in a blooming, buzzing confusion of present, past, and future.
Scalapino’s poetics attempts to reverse the impulse to reify and to give priority to ordered and hierarchicalized time (tradition) and to make motion and the experience of time subservient to tradition. Such a cultural imperative tends to impoverish experience, which in a conservative worldview must be understood as a condition of the conceptualization of motion and events. Relinquished in Scalapino’s view is the articulation of public and private spheres, so that the possibility for action and present experience to be recovered outside conventional conceptualization remains alive:
Activity is the only community. The conservative gesture, always a constant (any ordering, institutional and societal) is to view both activity and time per se as a condition of tradition. As such, both time and activity are a “lost mass” at any time. “For just as modern man has been deprived of his biography, his experience has likewise been expropriated.”
The recovery of experience allows community interactions to take place in a greatly enriched field of possibility, without the necessity to integrate dualities, but also with an understanding that the drive to order and prioritize them is not a determinant of an order of truth that exists outside us.
In “bum series,” a section within her book-length poem Way, Scalapino explicitly shows the interdependent relationships among entities. Moreover, she confounds perspectives and time-frames so that if a reader is expecting a psychologized narrative describing how the “bums” came to live—and die—on the street or how the “I” enters the causal sequence of events, such expectations are everywhere deflected. Events and relations, not time, are primary. The insistent dashes in the poem string together interruptive clauses, constantly reminding the reader of the relationships among entities in the poem, as in the first four stanzas:
the men—when I’d
been out in the cold weather—were
found lying on the street, having
died—from the weather; though
usually being there when it’s warmer
on the street who’d
died—in the weather—who’re bums
observing it, that instance
of where they are—not my
cranes are on the
skyline—which are accustomed
to lift the containers to or from
the freighters—as the new
wave attire of the man
though not muscular
the new wave dyed blonde hair—seeming to
wait at the bus stop, but
always outside of the hair salon
Scalapino fashions a temporal poetics in which time does not consist of a series of discrete beings or things occurring in a sequence of measured moments and happenings among which can be traced a narrative held together by the glue of causality. Objects, persons, and events do not possess discrete or inherent existence; instead, they always arise in a relationship of dependence, or rather interdependence. They are recorded in a web of motions and events that we only seem to perceive as the phenomenon itself. Not only are boundaries between subjectivities and tenses blurred, but also the more conventional narrative and descriptive ordering is actively destructured and flattened. This ordering occurs as a series of related or dependent phenomena.
For example, although the title focuses attention on the morally charged primary event of the series, the death of the bums, the bums and their deaths are brought into relation with several other events, consciousnesses, and entities, including cranes, freighters, a man in new wave attire who works in a garage, the “dumb” speaker, oil rigs, and the “present president.” The event that was invisible to the community—the death of the bums—is brought into ordinary, matter-of-fact relation to surrounding people, events, and things and to the sphere of political and economic power. The very invisibility of the event is a barometer of the community’s malaise: its snobbery, uncaring attitude, and ignorance. The poem enacts the relations among the various persons and entities yet resists their dramatization, which would assign a causal relationship and hierarchical ordering to events. Self-sufficiency seems absent in the series. Instead, all movements, events, and entities exist and function in relation to others. The writing enacts the relation between the “public figure” and “the freighter,” “[the relation] of the man with the dyed / blonde hair and / new wave attire—and / the freighter,” “[the relation] of our present / president . . . to the freighter,” the relation of the “social struggle” of the bums “to the freighter,” the relation of “the person of / new wave attire . . . to / the freighter,” and so forth. The writing also demonstrates that the relationship of self to self is a complicated one, conditioned by the interpretations of others and one’s interpretation of one’s own identities: “[T]he man in the new / wave attire” exists not inherently or independently but “as the relation / of him / being another person,” and “as / the freighter” and also as “his and its relation.”
However, some entities and events seem to be in an inverse or negative relation to others, notably the “present president” in relation to the bums and their social struggle. To the president, the bums are “abroad,” not in his own country and therefore in a vacant locus, always elsewhere and never included. Or rather they are included (living within the city limits, haunting its streets, and in the potential care of the state and community) as an exclusion (relegated to exist and perish outside that care). In a protectionist state, they exist outside the rope that separates those who belong from those who do not merit the paternalistic beneficence of the state. Thus the president is in an inverse relation to the bums “when there’s a social struggle in their whole setting, which is abroad.” But the bums themselves seem unaware of the social struggle, involved instead in the struggle for existence and survival on the streets. Not to “have desire—of the present” is to remain “dumb,” ignorant of social struggle and social interrelatedness.
Although the speaker confesses her ignorance, she also has the possibility not to remain as “unrepaired” as the car, not to remain in a senseless time, unable to experience the presence or to sense—in the sense of both understanding and perceiving—the interrelatedness and dependent nature of existence. She “almost froze” at the same time as the bums, “and realized I / could die from it.” Then she both doesn’t care and also realizes that it’s not possible for her not to care, since she and the bums cannot have inherent existence atomistically separated from each other. “[W]hen that’s senseless,” when not caring makes no ethical sense, her ignorance has been repaired, as the car may be repaired. However, the car has not been repaired at the time that the bums die from the cold. Thus, as if in sympathetic vibration with a broken-down car in the same setting, the bums are, even in their death, experiencing “grinding and / movement in relation to it.” The ending brings home the critical issues at stake for Scalapino in a dark and starkly comical moment.
Scalapino doesn’t so much shock us into the recognition of the bums’ relation to the various parts and to the whole of the community as make us feel discomfort at the metaphysical rug of time and description and their hierarchical accoutrements being pulled from under us. And it is in this zone of unease, in which we no longer have the comfort of temporal and causal handles, of hermeneutical certainty, or of the truth-correspondence of perception and cognition to an extrasubjective reality, that we find ourselves adrift in the free-floating strangeness of a world of phenomena and events in dependent relation. Discrete things and happenings do not ineluctably and irretrievably recede into a past that we continually try to recapture through historical representation of a selective narrative with causal links. Instead, Scalapino uses writing to invite critique of the experientially alienated self, the self incapable of experiencing movement and event, bound instead to a dualistic, atomistic, and mechanistic conception of existence. In “bum series” she presents the possibility of a “dumb” existence lost to the universe of becoming, prioritizing lost time and reifying time and its passage.
She also, however, presents the possibility of disabused existence in which the present event is given priority and in which inner and outer clocks only seem to correspond to reality. The speaker has awareness and the possibility for self-critique that the other “snobs” do not seem to have. In the writing, then, is the possibility of greater self-awareness and the realization of Nāgārjuna’s dependent co-origination of the phenomenal world. This view of reality is opposed to what cognitive scientists call the illusion of the “homunculus,” which is to say the discrete, disembodied, rational mind that is independent of other homunculi and that believes in the capacity to capture the past with a truth that somehow corresponds with external reality.
Scalapino’s project of paying close attention to one’s perception of ongoing motions and events in an attempt to recover experience not yet steered into temporal categories and trajectories is closely related to the project of recovering experience in a reality that is constantly being shaped (often without one’s consciousness of it) into categories of intersubjective relations and private and public realms of experience. Her poetry aims to open the field of possibility for experience, both individual and social.
1Norma Cole, Desire and Its Double (Saratoga, Calif.: Instress, 1998), n.p.
2Harryman, “Toy Boats,” in Animal Instincts, 109.
3Leslie Scalapino, The Public World / Syntactically Impermanence (Hanover, N.Y.: Wesleyan University Press, 1999), 3.
4Leslie Scalapino, R-hu (Berkeley: Atelos, 2000), 83.
6Leslie Scalapino, “The Woman Who Could Read the Minds of Dogs,” in Considering How Exaggerated Music Is (San Francisco: North Point Press, 1982), 31-50, originally published as The Woman Who Could Read the Minds of Dogs (n.p.: Sand Dollar, 1976).
7Scalapino, The Public World / Syntactically Impermanence, 53.
8Leslie Scalapino, How Phenomena Appear to Unfold (Elmwood, Conn.: Potes and Poets Press, 1989), 22.
12Scalapino, The Public World / Syntactically Impermanence, 13.
14Jay L. Garfield, “Introduction to the Commentary,” in The Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way: Nagarjuna’s Mulamadhyamakakarika, by Nagarjuna (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995), 87.
15Scalapino’s discussion of her affinity for Nagarjuna’s work is contained in her essay “The Recovery of the Public World,” in The Public World / Syntactically Impermanence (Hanover, N.H.: Wesleyan University Press, 1999), 53-62.
16In my discussion of Nagarjuna, I am indebted to Garfield’s clear analyses of the often puzzling and obscure verses of the Mulamadhyamakakarika . See his introduction and commentary in The Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way: Nagarjuna’s Mulamadhyamakakarika, 87-359.
17Garfield, “Introduction,” 88-89.
22Scalapino, The Public World / Syntactically Impermanence, 55.
29Leslie Scalapino, New Time (Hanover, N.H.: Wesleyan University Press, 1999).
30For example, in the preceding sentence, my description of the past as “receding” uses a common metaphor in which the future is in front of oneself, the present is where one is located, and the past is behind oneself. This metaphorical structure for temporality is common among cultures worldwide, but is not the only way of conceptualizing time. As Lakoff and Johnson point out in Philosophy in the Flesh, in the language of Aymara, spoken by a Chilean people of the Andes, the past is in front of oneself and the future is behind oneself. Lakoff and Johnson claim that an analysis of metaphors for time is important to philosophy because it is easy to be led astray by such metaphors. The force of linguistic habit leads us to take these metaphors as literal fact instead of as a useful conceptual apparatus. For example, if one thinks of an event as taking place within a duration of time, then one may be led to believe that the event and the duration are separate phenomena, and therefore that time has “a metaphysical existence independent of events.” See Lakoff and Johnson, Philosophy in the Flesh, 156-57. The entire chapters on “Time” (137-69) and “Events and Causes” (170-234) are helpful to understand how cognitive categories shape ways of thinking about time, events, and causality.
31Scalapino, The Public World / Syntactically Impermanence, 4.
33Nicky Marsh, “‘Notes on My Writing’: Poetics as Exegesis,” Postmodern Culture 8, no. 3. Retrieved September 9, 2002, from the World Wide Web: http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/postmodern_culture/v008/8.3r_marsh.htmlMarsh, 2, paragraph 4.
34Scalapino, New Time, 1.
35Scalapino, The Public World / Syntactically Impermanence, 35.
40Nagarjuna, The Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way: Nagarjuna’s Mulamadhyamakakarika (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995), 4.
41See Garfield, commentary to “Examination of Conditions,” The Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way, 117-18: “If we consider a particular moment of perception, the object of that perceptual episode no longer exists. This is so simply because of the mundane fact that the chain of events responsible for the arising of perceptual consciousness takes time. So the tree of which I am perceptually aware now is a tree that existed about one hundred milliseconds ago; not one that exists now. The light took some time to reach my eye; the nerve impulses from the eye to the brain took some time; visual processing took still more time. So if the story about how the tree is the percept-object condition of my perception according to which the tree exists simultaneously with the perception and exerts a causal power on my eye or visual consciousness were accepted, perception would be impossible.”
42Scalapino, How Phenomena Appear to Unfold, 21.
43Cytowic, The Man Who Tasted Shapes, 192-93.
44Scalapino, The Public World / Syntactically Impermanence, 3. Scalapino is quoting Giorgio Agamben, Infancy and History: The Destruction of Experience, translated by Liz Heron (London: Verso, 1993), 13.
45Leslie Scalapino, “the bum series,” in Way (San Francisco: North Point Press, 1988), 49-61.
Very interesting although I am going to have to read your piece a few more times. I went through a period in the 70s where I wrote poems that sat on the page in pieces, related to each other (usually ironic), but outside time. (Church Street Is Burning) The reader chose what to read first, imposed their own order on the poem. I got the idea from early Christian art where several story lines appeared on the same canvas to tell a bigger story. (Usually it was the series of events leading up to the crucifixion of Christ). Both Brueghel and Bosch repeated this idea in their work.
Hi, David, thanks for this insightful response! It’s interesting that you mention religious meditative art. Scalapino, in her poems in Seamless Antilandscape, imitates something of the quality of painted Buddhist tankas intended for meditative viewing. As her own explanation is inimitable, I’ll quote from an essay following those poems:
“In Mongolian (Tantric) Buddhist tankas (some so large as to cover an entire wall), multiple images of the same figure dispersed evenly—or different figures on multiple vertical-horizontal landscapes—are not deities, they are figures ‘repeated’ ‘as’ (to be) mind projections. As those repeat.
The repeated figures neither ‘resolve’ nor ‘reorder’ them (‘itself’ as repetition), but ‘it’ changes them.
There’s no depth, it’s thin, always separate. As repeated figure, there is no hierarchy.”
* * * *
“I traveled in Mongolia prior to writing Seamless Antilandscape. Later, I traveled in Tibet.
I was ‘placing’ while traveling, seeing them, Mongolian tankas spatially-conceptually ‘on’ the landscape there. These ‘two’ were: the real landscape horizontally vast, sparsely populated, without hierarchy visible land (only) illuminated changing ‘as’ sky’s golden or indigo light—and, going on at the same time, vertically rendered as huge wall-space tankas demonstrating ‘unconnected’ multiply repeated same figure. Or unconnected scenes (which may be connected narratively as ‘givens’ in that the scenes may be known by a resident viewer). Scenes might be a few people, or a few wild yaks (actually seen in clusters on the illumined vast land) the yak same face staring in clusters as simply this being (isn’t compatible with the characteristic of) ‘constructed domain of truth,’ conceptual construction as a ‘serious fiction’ ” . . .
Below is a page from Scalapino’s Seamless Antilandscape. In a conversation with me about these poems, Leslie stated that they are intended to be viewed, not really read aloud.
seamless seamless seamless seamless seamless bud dawn
seamless seamless seamless bud dawn seamless seamless
seamless seamless seamless bud dawn seamless seamless
seamless seamless bud dawn seamless seamless seamless
seamless seamless seamless bud dawn seamless seamless
seamless seamless bud dawn seamless seamless seamless
seamless seamless seamless bud dawn seamless seamless
seamless seamless bud dawn seamless seamless seamless
seamless seamless seamless bud dawn seamless seamless
seamless seamless bud seamless dawn seamless seamless
seamless seamless bud seamless dawn seamless seamless
bud seamless seamless seamless seamless seamless dawn
PS I like your references to Bosch and Breugel in relation to this. Very interesting.
This is one of the best pieces I’ve read on this work/this theme. Don’t you love WWCRMD? Heheh that almost sounds obscene. Weapons of Mass Poetic Construction or something. Certainly I agree that she confronted the notion of a dualism that’s run through much poetry for quite a while, and she offers us a possibility — in the way that Vattimo offered a possibility for the conundrum of postmodernism. It’s not such a given any more. It’s a resonating idea and, thank goodness, a continuing argument. Thanks for posting it!!!