Stitching shut the holes: on concealed erasure

Andrew David King
September 16, 2012
Comments 1

I began my last post with a discussion of the multiple valences the word “erasure” has when used to describe a poetic technique. But just as there are many different ways to parse the impetus for subordinating a number of visually-engaged poetic approaches under the umbrella of one term, there is likewise a plurality of such approaches within the technique itself.

So far, my discussion of erasure had been limited to works that preserve the spatial presentation of their source texts; I looked at Ronald Johnson’s Radi Os and Janet Holmes’s The Ms of M Y Kin, which respectively erase John Milton’s Paradise Lost and The Poems of Emily Dickinson. Despite being separated by the decades between their compositions, and also by the aesthetic and cultural dispositions of their authors, both works preserve a crucial element of the source text besides its individual words: the placement of those words on the page. By doing this, they transform white space into a sort of scaffolding that exists only by virtue of being remembered; the source text is long gone, but an impression of it remains in the work. They demonstrate that there’s a semantic quality to this white space, in a sense—that there’s more to an erasure, at least in these cases, than the words themselves. For as much as a text is constituted of words, it’s also constituted of their arrangement: the coordinates of their relationship in a field of space, what words sit on what page, the color and font and typeface, et cetera. And by leaving behind that arrangement—by refusing, to appropriate a term, to “erase” it—they include that element and all its implications for the resultant work. There’s a stronger sense of absence, that things that once were are now missing; these things exist now only through the white space that, not unlike a nameless gravestone, delineates their territory as such: “nothing else can go here.” In these erasures, we see words where they were originally intended to be seen, but not with what they were originally intended to be seen with. It’s a still life in which neither the pear nor the bowl has been moved, but everything else has been taken away to be eaten. We know, in this case, what’s missing—and we feel the tangible quantity of its lack, though all we have of substance to focus on is that one green fruit before us, much like the strings of words Johnson or Holmes hand-picked. Or, to use another horticultural analogy, even a vaguely Miltonic one: the tree has been cut down, but some of its branches, leaves, or fruit left in place for us to wonder at.

But what about those works of erasure that don’t preserve the spatial aspects of their source texts? Do they commit an unethical act; do they violate their obligation (if there is one) to inform the reader outright of their derived-ness? Or are there other ways they can still be considered salvageable, ethical works of art and not retain the material order that so clearly sets apart a grand work of architecture from its ruinous remnants? Perhaps these questions are unfair—perhaps there’s something unethical itself about assuming that works of erasure which preserve the spatiality of their source texts are somehow more ethical than those that don’t. I’m not convinced of this, but I do want to point out the (to me) obvious consequences of including that spatial structure: I assume that it gives most people, as it does me, the very particular sense that something has been removed or otherwise negated, and from that point on I wonder about this negated non-entity; this wonder changes the shape and texture of my aesthetic reading experience and likewise my semantic reading experience. What possible meanings could have been had the text not been erased in such a way, or if it had been erased otherwise? And how do these meanings—or the meanings left on the page—communicate with the text’s original intention, however we choose to define that? I find these questions to be inexorable when faced with a work of erasure that treats its source text’s spatial rubric as something not to be tampered with. In part, this makes the tampering evident, but it also obscures it—in most cases (with a few exceptions, like Jen Bervin’s Nets, which I’ll get to in a future blog post) the removed text is wholly removed. To obtain it, or to obtain a subject of comparison more concrete than what one remembers of the source text, one is forced to return to that text itself (which creates an additional, Russian doll-like layer of potential meaning, one shared between the source text and its erased iteration). In any case, even if it’s remains aren’t there, as they’re not in the cases of Johnson and Holmes, the impression of its body both on the page and the mind still is.

With a block of prose, however, or a conventional poem that projects a notion of its own “completeness” (as most poems do; i.e., most do not give any indication that they are effaced versions of otherwise-identical art objects that came before them), the evidence of such tampering is tidied away. No longer are we allowed access to the openings or apertures that the erasurist rent into their source text to create their erasure; no longer can we see the stitches used to close these source texts. Instead, the erasure poses as its own “complete” text, one that never had to undergo a process of alteration and amputation to reach its present state. This isn’t to say that erasures like Johnson’s and Holmes’s aren’t “complete” texts; they are finished works, but their presentation harks back to the author whose work underlies, and therefore makes possible, their own. But an erasure that masquerades as an “original” text is doing something markedly different. (I’m not going to get too deep into the thornier questions about literary originality, even with works of poetry that aren’t erasures; critics from Emerson to Perloff have found problems with a simplistic, even mysterious view of literary originality—as if acts of writing were dictated from some divine wellspring of newness.) Such an erasure can still pay homage to its source text, as the three contemporary works I’ll consider in this post unequivocally do: Matthea Harvey’s Of Lamb, David Dodd Lee’s Sky Booths in the Breath Somewhere, and Dan Beachy-Quick’s This Nest, Swift Passerine. But this doesn’t preempt a consideration of how the choice to alter the presentation of the leftover text as well as its semantic aspects affects the finished artwork. Particular readings, it seems, would be come closed off—readers finding themselves faced with a slew of single sentences can no longer locate the evidence that the source text ever existed; neither its skeleton nor an impression of that skeleton, which works that hold onto the source text’s structure still have, can really be said to exist in works of this sort. But how, then, does it exist in relationship to the erasure—given that it does, after all exist (else the erasure wouldn’t be possible)? Absence, in these works, is turned oblique: instead of the Venn diagram we find in Holmes or Johnson, where the writings of Milton and Dickinson overlap with the editorial and generative faculties of the aforementioned poets, we have two separate spheres. One consists of the source text, and the other the erasure. The works of Harvey et al. no longer overlap in terms of materiality with their source texts; they become, if not new objects, newer ones. But they do, as I mentioned before, overlap in terms of inheritance—and this makes the knowledge that these erasures are erasures even more bizarre, for we’re left with the question of how the erasure relates to its predecessor but without any spatial directives to guide us. And as these signposts disappear, all traces of process—how the erasure came into being; which words were scavenged, and in what order—disappear too. These projects are products of what I want to call “concealed” erasure.

Of Lamb is exemplary not just because it is a work of such erasure—Harvey went through a copy of A Portrait of Charles Lamb by David Cecil; this is her source text—but also because it takes an approach similar to that of Tom Phillips in A Humument. Both projects import wholly alien visual elements into the text, and thereby implement in it more than just the vocabulary of text. It’s worth noting, however, that while Phillips paints, draws, and otherwise takes the pages of W.H. Mallock’s novel A Human Document as a sort of extended canvas, he still preserves the placement of the words on each page. To put it alternately, he takes not just the text of his source text but the material presentation of that text (which includes the text) as his starting point. In deriving bits of text that are aesthetically or semantically interesting, he retains the stationary positions of the words and letters that compose those bits. Harvey, on the other hand, does not. The back cover of Of Lamb describes the book as follows: “The mercurial story of a lamb who wants desperately to be human and the human who loves that lamb—told in more than a hundred short poems and eye-popping paintings.” In addition to Harvey’s work compressing the text of Cecil’s biography of Lamb so that readers are no longer certain where, exactly, missing text is missing, she also shifts the text’s form from prose to poetry. In other words, Harvey “erases the erased text,” one could say, and what text is leftover she converts into haiku-sized, often pithy excerptions (breaks between poems are indicated with an asterisk; the following poems aren’t presented in the order they appeared in the book):

Lamb described
London Bridge
with his tongue.
 
*
 
Win – ter
wash – ed
by
 
*
 
Lamb thought about
trousers, but he was
a nonconformist.
 
*
 
Blurred mornings—
the smooth lawns
sprinkled with Lamb’s imagination.
 
*
 
Poor spindly Lamb
experienced a
shrinking
world.
 
*
 
In the next room,
terror.
In the house,
remorse.
In the next room,
the very next room,
indignation, grief.
 
*
 
His anxiety
a glittering chandelier
rustling in his mind.

Prose (or a nod toward prose) emerges in “Lamb’s first letter / after six weeks / in a madhouse”: “I bit / my shadow / and Mary” is written in cursive beneath the usual hand-drawn lettering which indicates the main narrative voice. On the facing page, Porter conjured the solid and dotted lines of workbook paper used for practicing handwriting; above it, the narration continues. “Crammed with language, / Lamb was now talking,” it says. “Here, a typical sentence:…” At this point, we receive a sentence of presumably “found” language from Cecil’s biography of Lamb that could be recapitulated as poetry but seems to want to be taken as prose: “I have sometimes in my dreams imagined myself as King Lamb, Emperor Lamb, higher than which is nothing but the Lamb of God.” These moments of such strong linear sense temporarily place the veil back over the erasure and give it a sheen of completeness; in an interview forthcoming on this blog, Harvey will say that Of Lamb was intended, wholly or in part, by her and Porter to be “a semi-secret erasure.” Like Tom Phillips, author of A Humument, she also puts the acknowledgment of her source texts at the end of the erasure, and seemingly for the similar reason of avoiding coloring the reader’s experience of the work with too much talk of its process. (As an aside, I want to point out how curious, under any scrutiny, a phenomenon this is: do novelists put notes at the ends of novels saying, “This book is the accumulation of five years’ life experience, in which I eavesdropped on many strangers while on the subway, watched a dramatic argument unfold in a public park—the content of which became the crux of my novel—and went through a divorce, many aspects of which appear in this book, but not all”? Instead we receive the “this is a work of fiction” disclaimer, which is itself a fiction.)

Harvey’s modes are so multivalent—and so demandingly visual themselves, without the accompanying artworks—that it’s hard to find even a choice few adjectives that would accurately, or aptly, describe Of Lamb. There’s synesthesia; there’s a sense of being trapped that sometimes, paradoxically, correlates with the openness concision can invite via its gestures toward what might otherwise have freely unfolded. There’s an obvious Blakean sensibility in the work, not just because the titular lamb echoes Blake’s appropriation of lambs and tigers quasi-theological subjects, but because of its metaphysics and the imagism that seems to underlie it; the book’s never-quite-consummated attraction with symbolism is intensified by the illustrations and paintings artist Amy Jean Porter furnished for it. There is, as a byproduct, a sense of displacement that doesn’t have to do as much as with the fact of the project’s status as an erasure (although it may indirectly be a result of this) but more with the unease of portions of linguistic brevity when they’re paired with mentally expansive works of visual art. And in many cases, Harvey’s writing very directly speaks to that art, or at least encounters it: the poem “Win – ter / wash – ed / by,” besides evoking an almost Basho-like tendency for framed slices of a natural scenes that focus on their naturalness and use it as a doorway into universality, interacts with the visual art on that page as well; each hyphen, while present on the page, is present precisely because the word is bisected by some visual element. So the visuality of the poem isn’t as much dependent on the source text, as with Holmes and Johnson, but more relies on its own created-ness—its own manufactured and invented conventions—for physical shape. Some of these poems are wryly hilarious, cf. the “trousers” lines, and others are almost psychedelic. “Blurred mornings— / the smooth lawns / sprinkled with Lamb’s imagination” calls up the physicality of a world governed by either mind-altering substances or an avant-garde interpretation of philosophical idealism, where the line between mind and world is not so binary as we might first think. Nor is the line between mores and taboos so clear, either; there’s something bestial, if one can ignore the pun, about the relationship Lamb has with Mary. And binaries are frequently dissolved by Of Lamb. Consider the binary of a) the source text and b) the erasure, which Harvey and Porter complicate by making a work that seems wholly original but acknowledges its reliance on a found publication. Consider also the binary, which I’ve entertained extensively so far, of “preserved spatial structure” with “created spatial structure” with reference to how the words exist on the page in each work. Of Lamb doesn’t strictly “preserve,” so to speak, the materiality of Cecil’s biography of Charles Lamb. But it does create its own visual rubric, which produces tangible effects on the lines themselves.

And although the lines in Of Lamb are very much poetic lines, they are not so much lines of “poetry” in the conventional sense of poetry being black lines, on white pages, lineated straight across the page and enjambed vertically down the page. They inhabit a particular space in a particular way. Of Lamb’s lines also have their own code of habitation, but it holds far truer to visual art—which, I would argue, claims more territory for itself from the get-go; less is off-limits—than the narrow definition of “poetry” as text on the page in the way I’ve described it. But what of an erasure that goes even further than Of Lamb—one that doesn’t just compress the text it erases, but re-represents it on the page? This form of double-masking, of double-concealing, is something like what happens in David Dodd Lee’s surreal collection of erasures of John Ashbery poems, Sky Booths in the Breath Somewhere, (the comma being a part of the title). What’s even more subversive about Dodd Lee’s erasures is that they take Ashbery’s titles as their own titles, performing a third sort of theft: there’s i) the initial borrowing of the text, a sort of appropriation; then ii) the rearrangement of the text as if it were an “original” text, presenting it conventionally and giving no evidence, except what’s stated in the prefatory material, that its point of origin exists elsewhere; and iii) grafting these Frankensteined poems back onto their sources to found a fusion of the two. What results is a glimmer, a mobilized schism; the memory of the original poem is there, in the title, but what we get is something else entirely—we think—but also something that could never have come into being without the original. It’s the cyclical, hermeneutic circle, engraved and enacted via experimental poetics. It is the same circle that eliminates, in time, the independence of any singular voice. In an interview with Peter A. Stitt for The Paris Review’s “The Art of Poetry” series in the magazine’s Winter 1983 issue, Ashbery claimed he was trying, in his work, “to reproduce the polyphony that goes on inside me, which I don’t think is radically different from that of other people.” This bodes well for Dodd Lee’s project, which meshes perhaps-unheard singers in this chorus with the voice already loud and present: Ashbery. To get some sense of just what that means, let’s take a look at an excerpt from one of Ashbery’s poems from And the Stars were Shining, his 1995 collection—a poem titled “Somewhere in Places”:

And patient, exacting
no confirmation from those who know him,
the poet lies down under the vast sky,
dreaming of the sea. For poetry, he
now realizes, is cleverer than he.

This chunk, if we’re going to be interested in it solely for its aphoristic or epigrammatic nature—its content, its semantics—provides much to fawn over: the embodiment, one might say, of the almost trademark-worthy Ashberian preoccupation with the currents of experience, the existential “flow” as a phenomenologist like Hubert Dreyfus might say, of lived experience and experience as recounted in poetry. “I would like to please the reader, and I think that surprise has to be an element of this, and that may necessitate a certain amount of teasing,” Ashbery says in his interview with Stitt. But he qualifies this: “To shock the reader is something else again.” Shocking, where the message “seems to be merely aggression,” is a disruption of this flow, too forced an artifice to do anything but assert its own tautologies. Dodd’s erasure, then, might not aim to “shock” us into new meanings so much as to redirect that initial flow. Here’s what he produces with the material of the above-quoted excerpt:

Patient, no poet lies down under the dream.

The sky is cleverer than he.

Two very atomic lines in a poem full of atomic lines, all floating like the components of a Calder mobile, in little more than gravitational communication with each other. But because they are tied together by gravity, they unavoidably form a system—and in doing so, their speech approaches comprehensibility. This beginning, contrary to a sizable portion of Dodd Lee’s other work in Sky Booths in the Breath Somewhere, is more an inversion than a writing-out, a writing-away-from, a writing-over Ashbery. There is some writing-over: punctuation changes, as does enjambment, which I mentioned earlier. A poet is still lying down; there is still something “cleverer than he.” But what about the order of the words? Here we find “sky” before “dream[ing],” but “sky” appears after “dreaming” in Ashbery’s original. Dodd Lee writes of his process in the introduction to Sky Booths that he “could use in these new ‘poems’ any word (or parts of words) from any single Ashbery poem. But I couldn’t just pick words randomly from anywhere in the linear thread of words… I had to construct my text by moving through the source poem, selecting words as Ashbery ordered them…” What results is a process of “omission” embedded with the same sorts of “accidents” that the writing of a non-erasure poem is; Dodd Lee labels these moments erasure “typos” and says that they “happened infrequently enough to seem worthy of inclusion.” This, too, makes sense in terms of Ashbery’s own ethos: his material methodology is largely that of the conventional English approach to the page; Dodd Lee adopts his own different methodology when he takes on erasure as a pillar of his project. But he’s not willing to let it so fully dominate that the process of his thinking is itself erased; not all of the titles belong to Ashbery, for instance. As Ashbery, in his interview with The Paris Review, said: “I think my poems mean what they say, and whatever might be implicit within a particular passage, but there is no message, nothing I want to tell the world particularly except what I am thinking when I am writing.” Dodd Lee’s poems, then—if they are his—are records of intellectual engagement, seismographs for the motion of his eyes and his hands as they moved through the source text. Another example of this reading experience embodied as such, with all its imperfections, can be found in his erasure of Ashbery’s “One Evening, a Train,” the first stanzas of which read thusly:

Still at it, friend?
God likes us to find these things out
for ourselves. In many ways it’s a crapshoot.
It’s not that we’re creeps, only a little strange,
like ice in ice cream. So guess what:
You’re free to leave and take your shaving kit
with you. We’ve had our fill of your sort.

Majesté, excuse me. I was hoping for a little
cooperation here…

This odd dialogue takes on a more bitten, laconic tone in Dodd Lee’s mind:

God likes us for ourselves

man
the little strange guest

You’re free to love

We’ve had so little will

The next line reads “black drops of acquittal,” an assemblage of the full words “black,” “drops,” and “acquittal” in Ashbery’s poem and a stitching-together of the letters “o” and “f” to form the connective “of.” The reborn version of the poem takes on a more theological tone—questions of love and the will are present; love, perhaps, as a salve for the paucity of will. And despite some divine being’s acceptance, man is still a “little strange guest” in his condition. “You’re free to leave” becomes “You’re free to love” even though there are neither whole words nor letters between that phrase and the next quoted one—“We’ve had so little will”—from which “love” could be assembled. So the erasure itself brings new material, in addition to incorporating that which it dissects for its own purposes. And in Sky Booths in the Breath Somewhere, there’s a piece that doesn’t abide by the methods Dodd Lee puts forth in the beginning of the collection. Titled “The White Shirt” after the poem from Ashbery’s Hotel Lautréamont, Dodd Lee’s envisioning is essential the poem with minor shifts in capitalization and punctuation with its stanzas reorganized to be read in the reverse order of the original; he subtitles it “an Ashbery poem, erased, rearranged,” but there are insertions, too—“It’s not that easy. Pay no attention.” in Ashbery’s original becomes “Attention? It’s not that easy.” at the end of the altered version, which leaves the new version with a total of two question marks though there’s only one in the original. What results is a sort of refracted reflection of Ashbery’s original, what a poem might look like were its semantics held up to a mirror. Or a convex mirror, in the case of Ashbery—from the beginning portion of the eponymous poem from his 1975, Pulitzer Prize-winning collection Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror come these lines:

Chiefly his reflection, of which the portrait
Is the reflection, of which the portrait
Is the reflection once removed.

The self moves into other things, which move back into the self, which move into poems and back into the self—these movements back and forth approach incomprehensibility, but for a moment they are traceable. For a moment they can be seen: this is what Dodd Lee’s project accomplishes, and it is no small feat. Ashbery, writing of Gertrude Stein in ARTnews, wrote: “Her structures may be demolished; what remains is a sense of someone’s having built.” Underneath all of this concealment is a very final nod toward solidity; solubility is subsumed into this process as necessary step—the works become water, are experienced as such, and then become stone again for a time. We hear poems in poems, hemistich lines in longer ones, semantics where we think there is mostly sound and sound where we think there is mostly semantics. At the end of the day, it seems to me that to make the argument that these works of erasure, which are undoubtedly knotty in terms of ethics generally and also the ethics of heritage, are not necessarily more so than any “conventional,” “original” work—if anything, they trace at least one part of their lineage more honestly, more openly, and thereby create apertures through which other works might do the same.

Examples of this are rife. In Dan Beachy-Quick’s book-length collage text, This Nest, Swift Passerine, as passage from Thoreau’s journals appears: “Those sparrows, too, are thoughts I have. They come and go; they flit by quickly on their migrations, uttering only a faint chip, I know not whither or why exactly.” But it appears lineated, as Beachy-Quick perceives it—or as he hears it. What might be said about Beachy-Quick’s incorporation of Thoreau’s passage, besides an observation of its deft hybridization of perception and the external world? That the sparrow is a thought, but Thoreau and his journals are also thoughts. This is what the incorporation of the journal fragment—and the capitalization of letters that begin first lines when it is lineated, which further push the source from its first incarnation—re-enacts: the material of text becoming the material of thought. It is here where questions of what is owned, or what is owed, lose all friction and become endpoints towards which we are infinitely moving. We will still move toward them, and we should, but we should also continue to conceal. We should continue, I would hazard, to take concealment as a radical way of issuing hypotheses about poetic perception, of obscuring from one another what it is we want them to look for—of looking for those caches in the writings of others and finding both what was intentionally hidden and that which was hidden until the idea of seeking it was found. By doing this, we graft our branches back onto the endless vine which first shot them forth.

One thought on “Stitching shut the holes: on concealed erasure

  1. As Stephan Saperstein Frug has pointed out, this version of Ashbery’s contains (not an erasure but!) a duplicated line. It should read

    “Chiefly his reflection, of which the portrait
    Is the reflection once removed.”

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