Tag Archives: poetics

Signifying the Tradition: Kaie Kellough’s Maple Leaf Rag

         The following is a review essay on Kaie Kellough’s Maple Leaf Rag that I wrote for Influency 10: A Toronto Poetry Salon. During this course, rob mclennan also delivered a paper about my Sonnets.

Be sure to check out the YouTube link at the end of this review for a spell-binding performance by Kaie Kellough!

Winnipeg: Arbeiter Ring, 2010

Signifying the Tradition:
Kaie Kellough’s Maple Leaf Rag
by Camille Martin

         Kaie Kellough’s Maple Leaf Rag is an exemplary Influency text—a model of intertextuality that weaves together history, genres, disciplines, and processes. Its historical themes include the history of the African Diaspora, the Middle Passage, slavery, the Jim Crow era of segregation and discrimination, and the lingering racism experienced by people of colour. It’s also in dialogue with musical and oral traditions: jazz, blues, reggae, bebop, and dub poetry. In its blending of the oral and written, it pays tribute to the strength of both. And it engages issues of social justice, infusing its rhymes, rhythms and wordplay with the caveat to remain vigilant about racial prejudice.
         Maple Leaf Rag pays homage to black culture and also engages in a lively dialogue with traditions. And this doubleness is important to the heritage in which the text swims. On the one hand, its identity is linked with the history and experiences in black culture. On the other hand, it also uses processes within that tradition to “play the dozens” with its own heritage, to riff, pun, encode, and ironize its text, so that the book is a continually shape-shifting, meaning-splitting exploration of moments leading to its own creation.
         This tradition of intertextuality in black literary history is explored in a landmark book of criticism, Henry Louis Gates’s The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of African-American Literary Criticism. In African, Caribbean, and African-American mythology, the trickster figures of Esu and of the Signifying Monkey represent messenger types (like the Greek god Hermes) who convey and interpret messages between the gods and humans (5, 6, 8). Some of the qualities of Esu include “satire, parody, irony, magic, indeterminacy, open-endedness, ambiguity, sexuality, chance, uncertainty.”(6). Above all, this mythical figure represents “figurative language and its interpretation” (6).
         Gates summarizes the ways in which these tricksters inform the entire lineage of black culture, from pre-slavery Africa to the present. First, he describes a double-voiced discourse, a tension between oral traditions and the written page that manifests as “finding a voice in writing” (21).
         A second type of doubleness in the black vernacular tradition arising from the trickster figures of Esu and the Monkey “undercuts . . . the literal” and “privilege[s] the figurative and the ambiguous.” Think of this doubleness as the very figure of a metaphor, a dance between the literal and the figurative.
         A third rhetorical strategy that arises from the trickster myths is the “indeterminacy of interpretation” (22). For Gates, this means that “[t]he text . . . is not fixed in any determinate sense; in one sense, it consists of the dynamic and indeterminate relationship between truth on the one hand and understanding on the other”(25). In “the highly structured rhetoric of the Signifying Monkey” in “Afro-American vernacular discourse,” “a chain of signifiers [is] open to (mis)understanding. The open-endedness of figurative language, rather than its single-minded closure, is inscribed in the myths of the Signifying Monkey” (42). Signifying “is a rhetorical practice that is not engaged in the game of information-giving”; instead, it “wreaks havoc upon the signifier” and thus “meaning is deferred” (52, 53). There is a “repeated stress on the sheer materiality, and the willful play, of the signifier itself” (59). Signifying doesn’t so much preach but instead sends its message indirectly, through verbal play and wit.
         In short, the Signifying Monkey is “he who dwells at the margin of discourse, ever punning, ever troping, ever embodying the ambiguities of language” (52).
         Gates also emphasizes an important rhetorical strategy in black literary tradition, related to the trickster trope of interpretation and revision: intertextuality or pastiche. He quotes Kimberly W. Benston’s definition of “genealogical revisionism”:

                  All Afro-American literature may be seen as one vast
                  genealogical poem that attempts to restore continuity
                  to the ruptures or discontinuities imposed
                  by the history of the black presence in America. (123)

As Gates puts it, “pastiche” is literary history naming itself. . . . Writers Signify upon each other’s texts by rewriting the received textual tradition”(124). Referring to the texts of others can serve the purpose of homage, with no criticism implied, or critical, implying some kind of revision or critique of the text: repetition and revision (79).
         I’d like to explore Kellough’s Maple Leaf Rag through the lens of the signifying tradition in oral and written black culture. Kellough’s introduction, entitled “readeradar,” alerts us to the disrupting and deferring of meaning through puns and double-talk as well as through the sound or oral element of the poetry:

                  sound guides each poem, often to a place where words
                  are splintered, meanderings belaboured, & meanings
                  are blurred. sometimes sense is suspended, sent up,
                  upended while sound is riffed on, the way a jazz
                  singer swerves from word to scat. some of these poems
                  are kin to the blues while others are jazz offspring.
                  I have tried to make the words scat, sing, swing. to this
                  end i’ve spaced them out on the page in dense prose
                  blocks, loose spiralling helices, narrow
                  descending lyrics, hand-drawn diagrams, &
                  so forth. (13)

The vernacular tradition on which Kellough draws also embraces music, which like a scat singer splays and reorders syllables that come in and out of meaning, always repeating, giving the sense of continuity, and revising, giving a sense of transformation, of never staying in one place. To the element of sound he adds the musical scoring of words on the page, in an imitation of the syncopations of jazz.
         In “readeradar,” Kellough also points to the project of intertextuality in his poems:

                  these poems contain numerous references to
                  black canadian, caribbean, and african american
                  culture: from hair styles to slave cemeteries,
                  athletics to immigration, musicians to
                  rainbow coalitions. (13)

         Thus in Kellough’s introduction are strong clues that he is drawing on the traditions that Gates analyzes in The Signifying Monkey. In the first of the three main characteristics of the signifying tradition, Gates demonstrates in much written black literature the meeting of—and tension between—oral and written traditions. Likewise, Kellough’s poems in this collection explore the conjunction of sound and writing; of, on the one hand, dub poetry and musical practice, and on the other, their arrangement on the page as if in a musical score. Two obvious examples of this conjunction occur in the real score notated on pp. 73-74, as well as in “word sound system #2” (32), which explores various permutations of “word” and “sound,” and invites the reader to imagine how it might sound if performed. The mind’s ear is a powerful compulsion in many of these poems.
         And in the strongly rhythmic “block rock” (53-55), the percussive repetitions and revisions of “BOOM BOOM BAP” alternate with lines that bring together the rhythmic bouncing of basketballs on asphalt, “life’s hard knock,” babies being rocked to sleep, “junkies,” the rhythms of life on the street, jazz, “funk talk,” and most ominously, the “morse code” of “gunshots.” In the onomatopoeic and ever-shifting “BOOM BOOM BAP” lines is a sense of the materiality of the words: they are nonsense words imitating the basketball’s bouncing. But these word-sounds also create a nether-space of pure rhythm overlain with meaning, as the words shift to “BOON,” “DOOM,” BOOM,” and “CLAP,” which parallel the shifting significations of the joyous as well as dangerous rhythms of life.
         In a similar way, “échos / montréal nord, 11 août, 2008” (33) with its strong visual and aural components, reflects on violence begetting violence, which echoes and reveberates like the sound of a revolver shooting. The idea of echoing gunshots is achieved by the anaphoric repetition of “BLAMM” in large, bold font that diminishes like a receding echo with each line. The main subject of the poem is the Montreal police shooting, without provocation, of unarmed citizens. The date in the subtitle refers to a night of rioting in North Montreal to protest the allegedly unprovoked police shooting of Fredy Villanueva (the “unarmed brown boy,” an eighteen-year-old Latino man), which echoes in turn the police shooting of Anthony Griffin, a nineteen-year-old man who allegedly was also unjustly shot and killed by Montreal police. Marcellus Wallace, the fictional drug kingpin in the film Pulp Fiction is apparently mentioned as a symbol of violence begetting violence, this time in the world of organized crime and drug trafficking.
         The violence that reverberates through the poem seems to be the result of the riot: “the eye socket ruptured by a rock,” the “molotov,” the storefront (“vitrine”) smashed by a bat, the “bricks . . . batter[ing]” an “ambulance.” It also echoes the “slug” of rum the police captain downs and the “shutter” of the “reporter’s camera” as well as his “deadline” for getting in the story. In the last line, “BLAMM” has become “BALMM.” The morning is personified as begging for an end to the violence, replacing it with the soothing balm of its soft light.
         “quittin’ rhyme / blues-bop for Kim” (22) sets to paper the fast pace and short, crisp, rhyming lines of bebop music. The tight and intricately interwoven rhymes of the short and long “i” sounds and word repetitions create a bebop effect. The poem is also rich in assonance, rhymes, half-rhymes, and alliteration, accentuating its musicality.
         The poem is in three sections, each introduced by the same tercet:

                  if you quit me
                  on the quick
                  split me in a lick

This tercet introduces patterns that are repeated and varied throughout: the “if” subordinate clause, which introduces a cause-and-future-effect pattern: “if you quit me . . . my heels’ll kick me.”
         The fast-paced repetition of “you” and “me” give the poem a sense of urgency as well as humour. “Quick” means both suddenly and “alive”; the latter meaning contrasts with the various plays on death, such as the speaker’s heart stopping, digging a pit or ending up in a ditch, his kissing a chill glass lip, diving into die, wilting, and being blasted by ice.
         The rhythm of the poem slows down in two places: the “tlick / tlock. tlick / tlock / ’ll seize / stop” of the speaker’s heart. The tripping meter of the opening tercet is slowed down to the spondaic rhythms of his beating heart.
         It also slows down in the last line, whose rhythm is so different from the trippingly light rhythms of most of the poem, it arrests the reading and draws attention to the startling image of a “flower blasted by ice.”
         The poem’s insistent short i’s suddenly become long i’s in the third section: “dive . . . die . . . jive . . . spite . . . like . . . vice,” then briefly return to a couple of short i’s (will . . . wilt) and then the final long i of “ice” delivers the sucker punch.
         The poem’s theme is as old as poetry itself: the spurned lover. But in the poem, the lover’s misery becomes an festival of rhythms and rhymes that belies the bitter occasion of the poem’s creation. We should also be so fortunate with such sublimation of pain.
         As a dub poet himself, Kellough dips into the dub tradition in “boyhood dub / self portrait” (25). The poem creates strong rhythms emphasized by the short lines. The poem’s musicality is brought out by rhymes, half-rhymes, and assonance playing and echoing off one another, as well as interwoven word plays, puns that expand the meaning and enlarge the semantic possibilities of the text.
         “boyhood dub” (25, 26) is a paean to reggae music—especially the experience of becoming lost in its “riddims.” The speaker of the poem is in Montreal during the winter, listening to a record of Bob Marley accompanied by the I-Threes. He’s grooving to the music and creates a kind of fantasy of being in Jamaica listening to a live performance. His imaginary world is strong and detailed: he imagines the parts of the drum set (tom, steel, hi-hat) and the organ and the skank of the guitar (strumming on the off-beats). But Anansie, the Spider (a West African and Caribbean trickster figure) spins a thread and climbs down the wooden “trunk” of the electronic speaker, bringing the fantasy back to reality: the “sham isle” has feather dusters for flocks of tropical birds, a wooden woofer instead of a tree trunk, a light bulb and electric fan instead of a tropical sun and breeze.
         However much the “cynic winter” murders his fantasy, memory once again draws him into the music, gives him a sense of connectedness to the history of the African diaspora and slavery (“toiling,” “coffled”).
         The last words of the poem (“real me”) can be read in several ways: 1) as an imperative to make the world of reggae real, to bring it to life instead of “failing to wail” in a “vapid living room,” 2) “reel” as in to reel with dizzyiness or joy, 3) to “reel” in a fish, as the music is reeling him in (with Anansi’s silk line?), and 4) “reel” as in spin (the record, the fan). If the music isn’t the real thing (he’s listening to a record in cold Montreal, in a rather sterile environment, it nonetheless makes him feel more real, give him a sense of self, of identity, and connects him with the stream of Black heritage.
         My last example of Kellough’s use of music forms and oral tradition on the printed page is the poem written in a traditional twelve-bar blues form, “simon the cyrene’s harlem dream” (37). Here’s the first stanza, each line constituting two of the twelve bars:

                  When I get to heaven
                  Ima ditty on in
                  When I get to heaven
                  Ima bop on in.
                  st. peter best
                  park my wings.

The blues form creates a strong auditory effect as the reader imagines hearing the words sung to the traditional blues harmony.
         Of course, in all of these poems exemplifying Kellough’s written expression of oral and musical traditions, we can also see ways in which the strong element of sound, playing with word sounds and shifting their meanings, as in “blam” to “balm,” and “boom” to “boon” to “doom,” splays the meaning, splitting the words and re-splicing them in new contexts to create a slippery progression of meanings that reverberate, recalling Gates’ description of the repetition and revision of signifying texts.
         I’d like to return briefly to “simon the cyrene’s harlem dream” as a poem that exemplifies the idea of intertextuality, which is integral to the signifying tradition. The historical Simon the Cyrene was from a Jewish community in present-day Libya; according to some Gospels, he was compelled by Romans to carry the cross for Jesus on his way to the crucifixion. Because he lived in northern Africa, Simon has become known as the first African saintly Christian. In passion plays, his character is often played by black actors (such as Paul Robeson and Sidney Poitier). “simon the cyrene’s harlem dream” imaginatively blends the identity of Simon the Cyrene and a Harlem blues singer invoking a heaven for himself after a life of suffering under racial discrimination. In this poem Simon fantasizes going to heaven as a passage into a music club, where St. Peter will park his wings and Paul as “maître-d” will give him the best seat next to the stage. “Jesus in an apron” will serve him “rum ’n rocks.” The angels will be “sepia-fine,” “brown as praise.” Famous entertainers from Harlem Renaissance days will perform for him: Josephine Baker, James P. Johnson, and Willie the Lion, and Fats Waller. In other words, in heaven, he will be given the best seat in the house, whereas in life because of his race he was denied entry into some Harlem clubs, such as the Cotton Club, despite the fact that most of the entertainers were black.
         There’s another tradition that Kellough riffs on in this poem. Depicting biblical characters as black has a tradition dating back to the first converted slaves in the sixteenth century and reaching a zenith during the 1920s and 1930s, especially during the Harlem Renaissance (Pinder 223). Countee Cullen’s conflation of Christ with the lynched black man in his long poem “The Black Christ” (1929) is one of the most famous examples.
         As Kellough dips into the long and rich history of black culture in Africa, the Caribbean, North America, and Europe, he recovers voices and details that might otherwise be forgotten. For example, “pardner hand savings plan” describes the experience of African and Caribbean blacks recruited to help rebuild British cities damaged by German blitz attacks during World War II. This immigration began with the arrival of about 500 Jamaicans on the Windrush in 1948, who sought greater economic opportunities and were attracted by the low boat fare. Pioneers in the racial diversification of Great Britain following World War II and dissolution of the British Empire, these immigrants were often given jobs of hard labour, and they faced racism and discrimination (Facing History). To cope with their adversity in their new home country, many of them formed benevolent societies to benefit, in turn, each member of the society, with a lump sum gathered from the tithing of all.
         In the poem, the labour is described as de facto indentured servitude, a postcolonial extension of imperialist use and abuse of black labour. Uprooted and degraded in the country where they wished to improve their lot, these immigrants often felt themselves to be in a cultural limbo, wanted for their labour but shunned by racist attitudes. As if to emphasize their conflicted and transcultural identity, Kellogh, in a twist on Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, describes these labourers as the “ghosts / of empires past,” and in an ironic echo of the social strata of India, once part of the British Empire, as the “untouchable caste.”
         Similarly, “the executioner” (63) recalls the story of Bernard Hopkins, African-American champion boxer. Written in the first person, the prose poem is a boasting, rollicking autobiographical rant that ends with a mythical ascension to the sun to become “the pure light beamed into your living room” as “you, dark doubter and cynic, flick on your television, receive my violent illumination.” The bright light of the television screen is likened to the “leather-melting ring-lights” and to the sun to which he ascends like an Icarus whose wings are immune to melting.
         “jelly roll in canaan land” (19) recounts the story of the early New Orleans jazz musician’s stay in Vancouver, an interesting note in the history of jazz.
         And lastly, “the didnt dues / for nobody” (44) also riffs on moments or aspects of African-American culture and history. Using the repetition of “I didnt,” the speaker ironically denies playing a part in or emulating any of them, from bebop to the rainbow coalition to the crip walk to jheri curls.
         The last words, “national dearth” sounds like “national debt”; “debt” combined with the “dues” of the title turn the “didn’t’s” of the poem into an ironic statement of apathy, whereas vigilance against racism should foster a sense of indebtedness toward those who have contributed to Black culture or paid their dues in creating awareness about racism. The action of the 1968 athletes with fists raised in a Black Power salute becomes here a metaphor for thrusting the fists through the national dearth or debt, suggesting either a lack of awareness of racism or an indifference to the need for vigilance against its roots.
         The poems in Maple Leaf Rag participate in the long and venerable tradition of genealogical revisionism; the words and meanings of its poems, disrupted by rhythmic splitting and splicing, multiplied by its polyphonies, both rupture and heal. These are poems of defiance and anger against racism, past and present. They are poems of vigilance, rattling the cage of complacency. They are poems of joy and playfulness reveling in expressions of black culture. And they are poems recovering pieces and voices of history in danger of being forgotten by a generation who sometimes feel themselves to be untouched by the historical baggage of discrimination and xenophobia, despite the official Canadian mantra of multiculturalism.

Works Cited

Cullen, Countee. The Black Christ and Other Poems. New York: Harper, 1929.
Gates, Henry Louis, Jr. The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of African-American Literary Criticism. New York: Oxford UP, 1988.
Identity and Belonging in a Changing Great Britain. London: Facing History and Ourselves Foundation, 2009.
Pinder, Kymberly N. “‘Our Father, God; our Brother, Christ; or are We Bastard Kin?’: Images of Christ in African American Painting.” African American Review 31.2 (1997): 223-33.

Camille Martin

Reading the Minds of Events: Leslie Scalapino’s Plural Time

The following essay was published in a critical feature on Leslie Scalapino in HOW2 2.2 (Spring 2004).

Reading the Minds of Events:
Leslie Scalapino’s Plural Time

Camille Martin

In a stream of reassuring
argument the memory
forms a flight of steps
swinging out over the

Void …

—Norma Cole1

Narrative is neither an oppressor to be obliterated nor the validating force of all literary impulse.

—Carla Harryman2

          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

the men
on the street who’d
died—in the weather—who’re bums
observing it, that instance
of where they are—not my
seeing that

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
—but young—with
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.

5Ibid., 33.

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.

9Ibid., 21.

10Ibid., 30.

11Ibid., 21.

12Scalapino, The Public World / Syntactically Impermanence, 13.

13Ibid., 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.

18Ibid., 298.

19Ibid., 89.

20Ibid., 316.

21Ibid., 94-95.

22Scalapino, The Public World / Syntactically Impermanence, 55.

23Ibid., 55.

24Ibid., 54.


26Ibid., 53.

27Ibid., 55.

28Ibid., 20.

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.

32Ibid., 12.

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.

36Ibid., 36.

37Ibid., 3.

38Ibid., 16.

39Ibid., 53.

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.

Camille Martin