Leslie Scalapino’s Rhythmic Intensities
Poetry Project at St. Mark’s Church
New York, June 21, 2010
The poet dies, the poet’s work is borne by her readers.
When I first encountered Leslie Scalapino’s work I was hard hit by its psychic intensity, formal ingeniousness, and rhythmic imagination. I felt I came to the work late; the first book I read was The Woman who Could Read the Minds of Dogs, which while published in 1976, I didn’t read till around 1981. The psychosexual dynamics of the work and its ability to make dislocation a visceral experience immediately became, once I had taken in the magnitude of Scalapino’s project, a capital point on the mapping of poetry associated with L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E magazine, one that deepened and enriched that survey. When North Point published Considering How Exaggerated Music Is in 1982, Scalapino’s work became an indelible part of my poetic firmament, that imaginary company each of us chooses but that also chooses us. That is, I feel as much chosen by Scalapino’s work as that I was doing the choosing; her work entered into and changed my consciousness about what was possible for poetry, changed the terms for all of us working along similar lines.
Every once in a while I would say something to Leslie about Considering How Exaggerated the Music Is. She would shake her head, slightly laughing, “Oh Charles not the music: considering how exaggerated music is.” As in her music, the music of her poems. Not exaggerated in the sense of hyperbolic or overstated, but as in extravagant, wild and wandering.
Starting in my earliest conversations with Leslie, when I would try to describe qualities I found in her work, she was adamant in resisting interpretations she felt countermanded her intentions. When I would say, but you know, Leslie, readers will respond in many different ways to a poem, she would give no ground; for her, how a work is to be interpreted was part of the poem: not just her intention, but part of the integrity of the work itself. I felt her rebuke to my more porous view of interpretation to be magnificent and improbable, for as much as Leslie set the bar for interpretation a bit higher than actual reading practices will ordinarily sustain, she demonstrated her fierce commitment to poetic meaning and also the truth in the form and materials, sincerity in Zukofsky’s sense: that reading was a social bond that necessitated the reader’s recognition of the formal terms of the work. So there was a right way to read, not in the moral sense but in a very practical one, as in a right way to operate software so it works, does the job for which is was made.
And you could say that Scalapino created a new and thrilling poetic software, allowing for a phenomenological unique experience, something like a 3- or 4-D poem. Her overlays, repetitions, and torques enable proactive readers to enter the space of the poem as something akin to a holographic environment. The present time of the work is intensified by her echoes (overlapping waves of phrases) of what just happened and what is about to happen, so the present is expanded into a temporally multi-dimensional space. Her undulating phrasal rhythms are in turn psychedelic, analytic, notational, pointillistic, and narrational. Think of it as deep-space syncretic cubism. And Scalapino’s performances of her work, many collected at PennSound, are crucial guides to entering this hyperspace.
Scalapino’s poetry was central to my poem/essay Artifice of Absorption, which I wrote starting in 1985. In Artifice of Absorption, I noted that Scalapino’s rhetorical repetitions create a disabsorptive/affective charm: the slight, accented, shifts in similar statements operate as modular scans of the field of perception, building thick linguistic waves of overlay and undertow, the warp of a thematic motif countered with the woof of its torqued rearticulation.
When I visited Leslie and Tom in Oakland a few weeks before Leslie died, her luminous and effervescent stoicism, the nobility in which she acknowledged death lurking in her garden, was fused with her refusal to give up on life and her urgent, tragic recognition of the work she still had it in her to do that she would not be able to do. She spoke of how much she wanted to come to New York to read her new work, and so together with Stacy and Tracy we made plans for her to read here tonight. In Oakland in May, we laughed together at the moment’s literary gossip and we talked about her just finished book, The Dihedrons Gazelle-Dihedrals Zoom, written in the late style of Floats Horse-Floats or Horse Floats; she knew it would be her last.
I sent her my response to this work just days before she died, trying to do justice to the work and hoping that she would accept my description as apt, which Tom tells me she did:
The Dihedrons is an ekphrastic implosion inside our severed human-body/animal-mind. “Memory isn’t the origin of events,” Scalapino writes early in this magisterial work, which restores the synthesis of events to its place as meanings’ origin. The Dihedrons Gazelle-Dihedrals Zoom — as much a work of grotesque science fiction as a poem —cracks open the imaginary reality astride reality. In the stadium of its visionary composition, the everyday floats vivid strange: in time, as time, with time, beside time.
Scalapino’s poems, from her first book to this last, probe politics, memory, perception, and desire, creating hypnotically shifting coherences that take us beyond any dislocating devices into a realm of newly emerging consciousness. Like a sumo wrestler doing contact improvisations with a ballerina, Scalapino balances the unbalanceable poetic accounts of social justice and aesthetic insistence.
Every once in a while, I’d say something to Leslie about her book series, calling it O Press; she would shake her head, slightly laughing, “Oh Charles not oppress, O Books”! “Oppression is our social space.” Leslie, with the support of Tom White, created one of the great small presses of our time.
I keep thinking about her titles, which are among the most amazing, fantastic, and unexpected of anybody ever … And her essays, which are models of a non-expository, exploratory style remains foundational for any activist poetics.
Like a ballerina doing contact improvisations with a sumo wrestler.
The poet dies, the poet’s work is borne … by us, in us, through us, as us.
It’s the longest day.
Considering how exaggerated music is.
photo ©2002 Bernstein/PennSound