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On Not Writing
“If it is one of those blank periods when my mind shuts me out then I feel as if I don’t exist.
“Writing was a way of translating the world and locating myself within it.”
Lavinia Greenlaw, post of April 9:
On the day the computer broke
I was with my family at the beach and had no notebook. Writing on scraps of paper seemed so pointless I didn’t do it. For about a week I didn’t write.
There was a pond, an ocean, some smallish trees, bushes, an otter in the pond, that sun. My brother and his family, my parents, my own family. Lydia Davis’s collected stories. Swans and gulls, washed up bits of bags and balloons. But in a particular way, none of this seemed to exist. Or I did not seem to exist. Not writing anything down, it all began to float. I’m not prone to depression, but maybe now I know why. Because after a few days of not writing, I experienced a precise and painful sense of disappearing—like Rumpelstiltskin once the queen guesses his name. In some versions, he floats out the window. In others he falls into a chasm. Or:
“In his rage he drove his right foot so far into the ground that it sank in up to his waist; then in a passion he seized the left foot with both hands and tore himself in two.”
Perhaps his rage has less to do with losing the baby than with losing control of the language he thought his own. Or perhaps losing the language we lose the baby. Or so it seemed.
To make up for this absence of writing, my mind began to attempt to write/right into itself. Anything I saw, heard, or experienced, it would repeat in language—a kind of interior chanting. “Shoreline, shoreline, shoreline” “crust of bread, crust of bread, ripped crust of bread,” “bee, bee,” “looking for Ben, where’s Ben, where’s Ben.” This would be the most boring poem ever, the one that names and doesn’t stop, with no movement between thinking and world but only world. For even the greatest of list poems, Inger Christensen’s Alphabet for example, includes an affective and guiding presence:
early fall exists; aftertaste, afterthought;
seclusion and angels exist;
widows and elk exist; every
detail exists; memory, memory’s light.
Last week at Naropa, Joan Retallack gave a talk about Leslie Scalapino’s work, in which she discussed Scalapino’s concept of “writing on the rim.” Eleni Sikelianos stood to ask a question: Can you, she said, save description?
Description is in need of saving because to describe the world, we in our post-mimetic aesthetic believe, is to kill it.
But, says Eleni, I have this dancing character, and she wants to be described. Joan quotes someone: “Wherever Flaubert’s sentence goes, the grass stops growing.”
The intimacy with the world outside of ourselves, with alterity, said Joan (and I paraphrase and maybe I get it wrong), emerges through writing that is dedicated to contemporaneity. By this she doesn’t mean writing that is concerned with the “new” (as in the cool or hip). Rather, she means writing which engages whatever is just now on the edge of becoming, on the “rim.” This reminds me of Benjaminian now-time, rooted in Jewish messianism, which, as Stephane Moses puts it, “gives a new chance for hope by locating utopia in the heart of the present.”
To write into contemporaneity is not to retrospectively and dully (or duly) describe. Rather, it is to write into now-ness even though, or because, such now-ness remains incomprehensible. When Matthew Arnold wrote “the wind-borne, mirroring soul, / A thousand glimpses wins, / And never sees a whole,” it was a complaint. Though now we prefer the glimpses, without writing, I couldn’t even win those.
Whatever I considered “the world” seemed to be fading off such that, “it may…be more truly said that it has ceased to be than that it is” (Pater). And with that fading off of the outer came a corresponding fading of whatever I considered to be “myself.” Of course it’s an illusion– the notion that by writing time is slowed, distilled, things made to exist, myself made to exist. And it’s a weakness to believe it, even a shameful one. But there was never not that illusion.