Touching with the eye, seeing with the hand: erasure as reading experience

Andrew David King
September 12, 2012
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The term “erasure,” when used to describe a poetic technique, might be a kind of misnomer. To erase something is to “rub out or remove” it, according to the Oxford American Dictionary; to destroy it, to render its presence void. But contemporary works of erasure fulfill these definitional duties only in part. Though they do efface the material of an ostensibly whole text that chronologically preceded them, they also depend on it for their existence: without it, there could be no possibility of the erasure in the first place. Erasure’s foremost imperative is that the author—or the executor, if we don’t want to equate authorship of an “original” work with the creation of an erasure—deconstruct the material of the text to expose, discover, or alter, but the act’s reliance on construction is also clear. This yin-yang relationship between what we might call the “received materials” (or “source text,” the text with which the erasurist starts) and the “excavated text” (the resultant product of the activity of erasure, the “leftover text”) becomes even more troublesome to navigate when the notion that received materials are solely constructions and erasures solely deconstructions breaks down. But this interpretive decay is, besides being troublesome, also wholly a consequence of the practice of erasure itself. The work of erasure vindicates revision; it calls attention to the flimsiness with which meanings are roped to words, or sentences; it asks readers to reevaluate not just the content of the first author’s work, if there can be a content, but to pose serious questions about authorial intention as well. Were meanings that were forcefully excavated from a received text latent in that text all along? Does the presence of another author, another human, mean that responsibility for meaning shifts to them alone? It might, of course, be shared between the two—but if so, how?

Although these questions don’t offer easy answers, they are neither futile nor useless; the best works of erasure, while hardly offering solutions, facilitate some hypothetical responses that vindicate the decision to spend time toying with them. It should be worth noting that the OAD’s definition of “erase” puts “rub out” before “remove”; this hierarchy of description emphasizes the penultimate physical confrontation—the “rubbing out” that happens with the pink bit of rubber at the end of a pencil, or with a brush or knife—over the removal. In other words, the removal isn’t instantaneous, but dependent on that confrontation. We can zap any bit of text into cyber-infinity with one stroke of the DELETE key, but this might be an instance more of obliteration than of confrontation; there’s little to no evidence on the page, electronic or printed, that the word in question ever existed. This act, as the key’s title suggests, is one of deletion and not erasure, per se. Erasure is something other than an act of simply getting rid of something, of demolishing its existence. There might be no faith in obliteration’s ability to remove the history of a thing in addition to the thing itself, but the connotations of the term imply something more permanent than erasure. Obliteration may, of course, try to un-write history and fail; it may leave remnants. But in an important sense this goal is alien to the act of erasure. If anything, erasure may re-write history for the purposes of conjecture, or to retrieve other possible histories from the account of its source text. But it may just as well engineer the new from the old, or pit the old against the new. What’s necessary for the latter examples to realize themselves is the existence, in some sense, of the source text in the “finished” work of erasure. There may be a present-day tradition of erasure which finds the material of the source text uninteresting, but it seems that for the majority of contemporary works, it is precisely the existence of this source texts which charges the erasure with potential and multiplicity. Questions like “What does the erasure do to the source text; how does this change our understanding of it?” and “How might the authorial intentions of the first author and the erasurist play off of each other, or interact?” become comprehensible. They may be speculative, but this speculation is an ingrained part of our fascination with watching the ways in which history might change. It might not be fair to trace motifs or themes in an erased work back to the work of the original author, or to say that they are “latent”—but erasure validates forays into this sort of scholarly no-man’s-land where hard-and-fast conclusions cannot be drawn but which, nonetheless, entice one to draw them.

A consideration of several modern examples of erasure should shed light on the dichotomous relationship erasures have with their source texts: they choose to vaunt it at the very moment they also redact it (though the term “redact” is a loaded term with reference to alternative poetics, which I will explain in a future post). One of the most prominent works of modern American erasure is Ronald Johnson’s Radi Os, which was first published in 1977 and again in 2006 by Flood Editions. To create Radi Os, Johnson took his pen to a copy of The Poetical Works of John Milton from 1892. (The same year, interestingly enough, that William Hurrell Mallock’s A Humument Document was published—the text that Tom Phillips chose to serve as the foundation for his own work of not-quite-erasure, A Humument.) The way Erik Anderson, writing for the Denver Quarterly, described Johnson’s decision to adopt Milton types Radi Os as a consequent of a particular type of influence. “The day after listening to Lucas Foss’s Baroque Variations—a work that ‘tunnels’ through pieces by various composers, in which ‘Groups of instruments play . . . but keep submerging into inaudibility,’ leaving ‘holes’ in the original music—Ronald Johnson walked into a Seattle bookshop,” he writes, before going on to make the obvious comparison of Johnson to Phillips. The two artists don’t just differ in subject matter; Johnson chose Milton and Phillips chose Mallock, but the resultant artworks reside at opposite ends of the same spectrum. Whereas Phillips chooses to “push down” Mallock’s text by placing paint over it, or by altering it in some way that leaves choice groups of words available for semantic connection, Johnson turns whole swaths of Milton’s theological poem into invisible placeholders. To appropriate Foss’s description of his own Baroque Variations: “Handle’s notes are always present but often inaudible.” In Johnson’s work, Milton’s words are likewise always present but can only be seen by what forces they exert on the visible words that surround them; akin to the astronomical concept of dark matter, they are found apophatically, only by the determined positions of the inked words that they cannot be. Their existence is not a ghost-like one, for in traditional imaginings the ghost is an entity that at least bears some resemblance to a past form it once had. Johnson—and other erasurists like Janet Holmes, who authored The Ms of M Y Kin (“The manuscript of my kin” is one reading) using The Poems of Emily Dickinson—doesn’t leave the skeleton or an image of the skeleton. He leaves nothing but its memory, and this only vaguely.

If the text is a body, these erasures don’t perform surgery. They gore; they pull out veins and cartilage and tissue and organs and leave them on the operating table of the page. What results is an object capable of being encountered many ways, but always anew, always refreshed. Though its text confesses its dependence on a pre-existent work either by declaring this at the outset, as do Johnson and Holmes, it also asks, paradoxically, to be seen as a full departure from this lineage and from notions of hybridity. It asks to be seen as a wholly new object despite the very impossibility of such newness, which is one consequence of its aesthetic. But there are two points of view in particular I’d like to explore with regard to what’s left of the source, i.e. its “remains”: a non-semantic appreciation of these elements in juxtaposition and spatial situation, and another approach that takes into account new semantic strings—string of “sense” or meaning—that are afforded either by a) the fact that some materials are erased and others aren’t, or b) a palpable authorial intention that seems to want to make new sentences or phrases out of the material the source text provides, though these phrases might contain meanings foreign to those of the source text. Johnson himself moves between both of these modes. Some leftover words in Radi Os seem isolated only for the purpose of aesthetic isolation, or for some oblique, atmospheric relevance to the project at large. But others seem to make sentences, or to at least hint toward sentences. It could be that we’re called to both examine the “leftover,” excavated text as a new thing but also as a ruin, if such a thing as a “new ruin” isn’t an oxymoron. If an erasure was looked at in this way, it’d be easier to make sense of a refusal to erase words that abide by the syntax of standard English. But despite the age and canonicity (could Johnson have chosen a more canonical text if he’d tried?) of Paradise Lost, which one might say makes any work based off it just such a “ruin” by definition, I’d argue that Johnson’s work in Radi Os takes on a dual purpose—that its handling of Milton’s textual material in one interested in both aesthetic showmanship (the result of disassembling language and removing words from the syntactic structures that cushion them) as well as the creation of new meaning (a very strategic type of aesthetic showmanship that’s also interested in connecting words and phrases into understandable sentences). In other words, Radi Os is both construction and destruction; it is both a display of words pulled back into objecthood and those objects exalted anew, called forth into a heretofore unseen semantic sequence.

To get some idea of how Johnson uses erasure to move through Milton, it might be best to look at some selections of his (again we’re faced with the question of whether or not Radi Os is Milton’s or Johnson’s, or if it belongs to both) text. A few notes beforehand, though: either due to Johnson’s aesthetic preference or to the constraints of erasure—or perhaps both variables—Radi Os, which encompasses the first four books of Paradise Lost, contains few periods. It unfolds, rather, as a series of run-on sentences that drift freely from one page to another, either riddled with absences or chock-full of the presence of the left-behind page. In either case, the capital O of the title is there consistently: a form with something at its center, be it emptiness or content. But because these two are so closely conjoined, it is difficult to determine where a semantic thought is “beginning.” In excerpting the text, I encountered this difficulty frequently. I’d find a few words that seemed to make more linear sense by moving backwards through the passage, but then I found myself moving backwards more and more; this continual reversal of progress seemed never to end. Though the text resists the sort of excerption that easily encapsulates main points (if there are main points to be encapsulated in Radi Os), I eventually had to decide to close off, via such excerption, readings that could quite possibly be just as valid as the ones I put forth here. This is only prompted by a need for brevity, and by the idea that an examination of a moment in the text will yield valid insights about it as a whole, or at least about its methodology. Another note: the passages in Milton that I quote for examination are culled from Project Gutenberg’s version of Paradise Lost, which was released as an “EBook” in 1991. I do not know exactly how this version differs from the version with which Johnson worked, or if there were post-erasure (or posthumous) edits made to Johnson’s text. Perhaps Johnson himself changed the words when “composing” Radi Os for the printed page once he had completed it in his copy of Milton. But in some places commas, stylizations, colons, and dashes appear where they do not in the source text. There are also some disputable spaces between lines. I have reproduced Johnson’s text as it appears in the electronic edition that the Bell & Howell Information and Learning Company published in 2000. I’m not sure if this is a wholly accurate transcription of the text of the 1977 edition from Sand Dollar Press in Berkeley (the fact that it “flattens” Milton’s invisible text by left-justifying the visible words makes me wonder), or how it compares to the more recent Flood Editions version; these are questions for further investigation, and of mostly bibliographic interest.

Those qualms aside, what follows is passage in which Johnson stretches the semantic connections—either apparent or possible ones—between leftover words to the point where these connections seem, to me, to break down. This passage seems to be a segment of text that would be a good candidate for an argument about the “aesthetic showmanship” that I mentioned earlier; linear meanings, while certainly possible, are made oblique so that the decimated artifice of Paradise Lost can stand and be seen on its own once Johnson’s hand has been pulled back. First, let’s look at the passage from Book III before Johnson erases it:

…Of all things made, and judgest onely right.
Or shall the Adversarie thus obtain
His end, and frustrate thine, shall he fulfill
His malice, and thy goodness bring to naught,
Or proud return though to his heavier doom,
Yet with revenge accomplish’t and to Hell
Draw after him the whole Race of mankind,
By him corrupted? or wilt thou thy self
Abolish thy Creation, and unmake,
For him, what for thy glorie thou hast made?
So should thy goodness and thy greatness both
Be questiond and blaspheam’d without defence.
To whom the great Creatour thus reply’d.
O Son, in whom my Soul hath chief delight,
Son of my bosom, Son who art alone
My word, my wisdom, and effectual might,
All hast thou spok’n as my thoughts are, all
As my Eternal purpose hath decreed:
Man shall not quite be lost, but sav’d who will,
Yet not of will in him, but grace in me
Freely voutsaft; once more I will renew
His lapsed powers, though forfeit and enthrall’d
By sin to foul exorbitant desires…

To put forward a very simplistic reading of this passage, let me first reference “The Argument” that Milton prefaces Book III with. “God sitting on his Throne sees Satan flying towards this world, then newly created; shews him to the Son who sat at his right hand; foretells the success of Satan in perverting mankind…” it begins. There is unease in heaven, and this passage sits at a hinge in the dialogue between God the Father and Christ the Son; the latter asks God if he will “thy self /Abolish thy Creation,” and thereby rescind man’s existence and freedom at the threat of forthcoming perversion. God’s answer is extensive, and quoted only briefly here, but does give access to some of the character’s thoughts about salvation and human agency: “Man shall not quite be lost, but sav’d who will,” though this will is enabled and renewed by divine grace. There’s much more to be said about this passage, of course, but I want to transition back to Johnson and his erasure to highlight how such a theologically central moment fares under Johnson’s pen. Reproduced here is what Johnson makes of this heated, heavenly discussion:

Of all things made, and judgest onely right.
Or shall the Adversarie thus obtain
His end, and frustrate thine, shall he fulfill
His malice, and thy goodness bring to naught,
Or proud return though to his heavier doom,
Yet with revenge accomplish’t and to Hell
Draw after him the whole Race of mankind,
By him corrupted? or wilt thou thy self
Abolish thy creation, and unmake,
For him, what for thy glorie thou hast made?
So should thy goodness and thy greatness both
Be questiond and blaspheam’d without defence.
To whom the great Creatour thus replied:—
O Son, in whom my Soul hath chief delight,
Son of my bosom, Son who art alone
My word, my wisdom, and effectual might,
All hast thou spok’n as my thoughts are, all
As my Eternal purpose hath decreed:
Man shall not quite be lost, but sav’d who will,
Yet not of will in him, but grace in me
Freely voutsaft; once more I will renew
His lapsed powers, though forfeit and enthrall’d
By sin to foul exorbitant desires:

Under Johnson’s guidance, the passage is instead reduced to some of its key composites (though it would be unfair to say that a reduction is always what happens in an erasure): creation, “things made,” a dialogue of question and reply, an exploration of the “word” as a way the self makes its will and desires apparent, what it is to “be” a question. Also interesting is Johnson’s choice to retain the colons and dashes (though I’m not sure what edition of Paradise Lost, or editorial insertion, resulted in their presence), as if emphasizing this call-and-response without actually engaging in it. So far, though, I’ve only considered these composites as they might be understood independently of each other, because I think this reading honors the experience of encountering the words on the page; aspects of punctuation and traditional textual structure all appear, at first glance, to have been damaged, altered, or removed. But this is an impressionistic reading, one dealing in just such first glances, and it doesn’t quite acknowledge the continuity of Johnson’s work (the fact that, though it is constituted of leftover words, it still seems to insist on moving through them at the behest of a conventional approach: up-to-down, left-to-right) or the presupposed continuity of its source text. So one might also hazard a different reading, one that sees Johnson’s apparent reliance of this up-to-down, left-to-right method. One could even cite Johnson’s preservation of the spatial structure of Paradise Lost’s skeleton as evidence of his desire to keep those conventional behaviors welded to the text. This latter argument opens an aperture into the possibility of an overlap between destruction of the text into its material components or the reassembly of those components into meaningful semantic chains: not even the skeleton of Milton’s text is there, but rather the memory of that skeleton. All that can be said to “be there,” in terms of what’s left, are the individual words and phrases; though it’s true that their placement is determined by the framework of Paradise Lost, that framework isn’t allowed to coexist in the finished version of the text. What remain are free-floating, untethered bits of potential meaning in a sea of white space. In other passages, like the one that follows, Johnson uses erasure to confuse the grammatical comprehension of particular words; notice how “Is,” the third person singular present of “be,” is transformed into an italicized, proper noun:

To whose bright image nightly by the Moon
SIDONIAN Virgins paid their Vows and Songs,
In SION also not unsung, where stood
Her Temple on th’ offensive Mountain, built
By that uxorious King, whose heart, though large,
Beguil’d by fair Idolatresses, fell
To Idols foul.  THAMMUZ came next behind,
Whose annual wound in LEBANON allur’d
The SYRIAN Damsels to lament his fate
In amorous dittyes all a Summers day,
While smooth ADONIS from his native Rock
Ran purple to the Sea, suppos’d with blood
Of THAMMUZ yearly wounded: the Love-tale
Infected SIONS daughters with like heat,
Whose wanton passions in the sacred Porch
EZEKIEL saw, when by the Vision led
His eye survay’d the dark Idolatries
Of alienated JUDAH.  Next came one
Who mourn’d in earnest, when the Captive Ark
Maim’d his brute Image, head and hands lopt off
In his own Temple, on the grunsel edge,
Where he fell flat, and sham’d his Worshipers:
DAGON his Name, Sea Monster, upward Man
And downward Fish: yet had his Temple high
Rear’d in AZOTUS, dreaded through the Coast
Of PALESTINE, in GATH and ASCALON,
And ACCARON and GAZA’s frontier bounds.
Him follow’d RIMMON, whose delightful Seat
Was fair DAMASCUS, on the fertil Banks
Of ABBANA and PHARPHAR, lucid streams.
He also against the house of God was bold:
A Leper once he lost and gain’d a King,
AHAZ his sottish Conquerour, whom he drew
Gods Altar to disparage and displace
For one of SYRIAN mode, whereon to burn
His odious offrings, and adore the Gods
Whom he had vanquisht.  After these appear’d
A crew who under Names of old Renown,
OSIRIS, IsIS, ORUS and their Train…

Another contemporary work of erasure that follows in Johnson’s footsteps with regard to procedure and presentation is Holmes’s aforementioned The Ms of M Y Kin. In her “Note on the Text,” Holmes mentions that the poems “are erased from Emily Dickinson’s poems of 1861 and 1862, the first years of the United States Civil War,” and that the poems are each titled by the year in which they were composed, its sequential number, and by their Franklin numbers (the numerical designations the poems received by editor Ralph Franklin). This adherence to linearity, at least in terms of arrangement, is something to note, as is Holmes’s statement that the project was owed “to the invitation of its epigraph,” from Dickinson’s “#184”: “If it had no pencil, / Would it try mine—.” The potential connotations of using non-erased text to preface a collection of erased text from that same author are multiple, but moreover they suggest a sort of authorization, a permissibility. The epigraph’s placement at the head of the collection becomes more and more prominent as a narrative, however fractured or polyphonic, emerges from Holmes’s project. Issues of theological, political, metaphysical, and pragmatic concern are all considered, as they are in Radi Os, but they form a more concrete whole in The Ms of M Y Kin as opposed to a merely continuous one; Holmes’s choice to leave words like “impeach” in the text forces it to echo present-day discourse in an even more anachronistic way that Johnson. We’re left with the still-bitter taste of Iraq and Afghanistan in our mouths even as we knowingly wade through the wreckage—if erasure is wreckage and not construction, which I’m not convinced it is—of a poet writing during the beginning of the civil war that could have, had not many events resolved differently, ended the United States as it had existed until then. Holmes’s project achieves other differences from Radi Os as well, despite its affinity with that text’s preservation of the placement of the words on the page (the skeletons of Dickinson’s poems are honored by preserving the spatial placement of the leftover text). Holmes calls forth an eerie, aural resurrection of Dickinson’s poetic voice and sensibilities through her erasure, which might not seem like a feat until one reads Johnson and observes the utter tonal difference between him and Milton. Below, Holmes’s commitment to linear semantic sense—as opposed to the action of leaving words and phrases isolated for the purpose of aesthetic alienation or renewed strangeness—is made clear in her erasure of four poems Dickinson wrote in sequence in 1862, “#307” through “#310”:

A solemn thing — it was — I said —
A woman — white — to be —
And wear — if God should count me fit —
Her blameless mystery —
 
A hallowed thing — to drop a life
Into the purple well —
Too plummetless — that it return —
Eternity — until —
 
I pondered how the bliss would look —
And would it feel as big —
When I could take it in my hand —
As hovering — seen — through fog —
 
And then — the size of this “small” life —
The Sages — call it small —
Swelled — like Horizons — in my vest —
And I sneered — softly — “small”!
I breathed enough to take the Trick —
And now, removed from Air —
I simulate the Breath, so well —
That One, to be quite sure —
 
The Lungs are stirless — must descend
Among the Cunning Cells —
And touch the Pantomine — Himself,
How numb, the Bellows feels!

 

Kill your Balm — and its Odors bless you —

[page break]Bare your Jessamine — to the storm —
And she will fling her maddest perfume —
Haply — your Summer night to Charm —
 
Stab the Bird — that built in your bosom —
Oh, could you catch her last Refrain —
Bubble! “forgive” — “Some better” — Bubble!
“Carol for Him — when I am gone”!
 
“Heaven” — is what I cannot reach!
The Apple on the Tree —
Provided it do hopeless — hang —
That — “Heaven” isto Me!

 

The Color, on the Cruising Cloud —
The interdicted Land —
Behind the Hill — the House behind —
There — Paradise — is found!
 
Her teasing Purples — Afternoons —
The credulous — decoy —
Enamored — of the Conjuror —
That spurned us — Yesterday!

There are questions of historical import to ask here, namely: what are the implications of scissoring through one of the most ostensibly “American” American poets to both reiterate and edit the political and moral narrative (or fable) of the United States’ ongoing past? It’s not a question I can answer, but one I can begin to explore by looking at the ways Holmes handles Dickinson’s poems. There’s something markedly Dickinsonian about the tone of “God should / drop a life / Into / plummetless / bliss…” and Holmes’s allowance, or preservation, of her hallmark dashes into the erased manuscript; perhaps it’s a product of the same part-rebellious, part-inquisitive voice that wrote “Much madness is divinest Sense— / To a discerning Eye—,” but the question of Holmes’s influence also arises. Her elision is finely-grained; the line “‘Heaven’ is — to Me!” originally appears as “That — ‘Heaven’ is — to Me!”, leaving an exclamation mark suspended midair. There is, nonetheless, the kinship that the collection’s title evokes at play here, an ahistorical trust in Dickinson’s poems to communicate and bind hundreds of years after the fact. “The ambiguous paths of kinship pull me in opposite ways at once,” wrote Susan Howe of Dickinson in My Emily Dickinson, a work whose title conveys immediately conveys its goal of reclamation—stealing back Dickinson from the patriarchal literary establishment that wanted to place her biography before her poetry. Whether or not Holmes’s erasure is necessary or not to the larger project of keeping Dickinson in conversation with today’s troubles, or rescuing her from critical tyranny, is irrelevant; the point is that such was possible, that the sensibility of a present-day writer could be drawn into an affinity with a foundational poet of the modern tradition so intense it resulted in an exchange that took place not in their separate works but in the arena of the latter poet’s poems themselves. This, then, is what’s most remarkable about both Johnson and Holmes: though their projects both “update” their specific source texts and uncover new semantic and aesthetic layers within them, they also trace very explicitly two possible ways present consciousnesses can converse, debate, and even fight with past ones. The text of Paradise Lost or of Dickinson’s untitled series is not a record of speech but an ongoing act of speech, a living one that will inevitably confront the hand of the erasurist—a figure who is not very different, at the end of the day, from the scholar who excerpts Milton in order to scrutinize him or the poet who writes down a few inexorable lines from Dickinson in her notebook.

More than any of these other figures, however, the erasurist resembles the reader: there is something about any erasure, whether or not it honors the shapes of the pages from which it is derived, that mimics the sensory experience of encountering those source texts themselves. Though most conventional books incorporate apparatuses to direct reading—the up-to-down, left-to-right system that I mentioned before—it shouldn’t be too radical a thesis to claim that this is hardly how books, or pages, are first approached by most readers. Even while reading linearly, it’s impossible for me to voluntarily control what will first catch my attention, what will appear visually vivid versus banal, what will nag me in my peripheral to turn toward it. And so, due to the inability of my perceptual capacities to match those conventional apparatuses one-for-one, when I read I will myself be acting out a sort of erasure. This is only one of the many sequential erasures that will follow, however. When I’m done reading the page, or the text, I’ll put it down, and parts of that text will disappear from my memory while others will stay; this is a second form of erasure that will also take place in my mind and because of my mind’s inability—would such an ability even be comprehensible?—to be the very text that it processes. Because of these limitations I can never truly hope to come across a text the way a computer would, with the sort of unilateral democracy that demands every letter be treated equally. (But, at the same time, perhaps we should be thankful for this: computers have yet to produce eloquent dissertations on Milton, and we might doubt their motives if they did.) Dan Beachy-Quick, in a review of Flood Editions’s recent reprinting of Radi Os for the Boston Review, captured this idea about reading processes:

The world comes partial. An honest reader sees only what she sees, hears only what she hears, and does not claim an attention that encompasses all. No such attention exists. This seems redundant, but it is fundamental: I can only read the book I can read. I do this work as myself. Any other claim inflates the creative act of reading into broad criticism, into generalities, into “universals.” And as Ronald Johnson’s spiritual ancestor William Blake so fervently believed, generalities are for blockheads. Genius recognizes itself in particulars.

A text that is “not too Explicit,” Blake wrote, is “the fittest for Instruction because it rouzes [sic] the faculties to act”—in other words, obscurity is a virtue precisely because it demands intellectual labor before it yields its fruit, a resistance which ensures that the meanings contained in a text wouldn’t fall into rote emptiness at the hands of accessibility. Though there’s also the risk that one might never find the key to unlock the pertinent door (that obscurity will actually prevent the obtainment of what it values), we see the particularities of just this sort of intellectual labor made plain in the works of Ronald Johnson and Janet Holmes. It’s the sort of understanding of literary experience that could lead to whole philosophies of language and literature—an aim that Stanley Fish, in his seminal article “Interpreting the Variorum,” took up. Fish captures some important ideas about the experience of reading when he declares that the act of interpretation “writes” the text, and consequently that there is nothing “independent” or “prior” about texts, though criticism undertakes to present itself as mining empirical truths from them. I’m not sure that I can agree wholly with this approach as a model for an epistemology of literary criticism, but it’s certainly an interesting approach to describing its phenomenology. These are much thornier questions about the shape of consciousness that literature is prepared to explore, perhaps, but not answer—if a singular answer is even obtainable or even desirable. Lyn Hejinian, writing about Gertrude Stein in her essay “Two Stein Talks” from The Language of Inquiry, straightforwardly entertains the ideas about perception and consciousness that might underwrite Stein or a reading of her work; cubism’s influence is surely there, as is William James and his construction of consciousness through the repeated motif of water—the droplets composing the macro “stream” of consciousness. But although Hejinian lends credence to a conceptualization of consciousness as continuous, she also speaks to her own experience of it dissolving into obtuse shards, partitioning into puddles: “I myself don’t always experience consciousness as a ‘stream,’” she writes. “Instead it often does appear broken up, discontinuous—sometimes radically, abruptly, and disconcertingly so.”

But what are the consequences of this “fact”—if that’s what we take it to be, after all? I’m not sure I’m willing to go as far as Fish does when he says that there are no things that exist “in” a text to be empirically discovered. But I’m also not sure how we can escape the kaleidoscopic nature of the reading experience itself, and all its varying characteristics: it is linear (we at least try to read, mostly, in a manner that obeys the sequence of words on the page), it is chronological (our attempt to obey this sequence means that we experience words in a particular temporal order), and it is haphazard (because we fail at trying to obey these orders). But it is ultimately, due to all of these factors, idiosyncratic. “I can only read the book I can read,” Beachy-Quick writes of Radi Os. One might say that Radi Os itself was an experiment in making clear the inescapable ownership—and hence responsibility—one imparts whenever one reads (and thereby, Fish reminds us, “writes” or at least tries to make sense of) a given text and assembles some meaning from it, or more accurately for it. Dirk Stratton, in his monograph on Ronald Johnson for Boise State University’s Western Writers Series, cites Guy Davenport’s 1981 book The Geography of the Imagination to describe Johnson’s pataphysical objectives: he sought, as Thoreau and even Blake before him, to make clear the “intricate and subtle lines of force wherein man can discern the order of his relation to the natural world,” and to make “the invisible visible to the imagination.” Or to make the imagination visible to itself, as Stratton implies when he claims that all the words in Radi Os “are Milton’s; the white space is Johnson’s,” his record of his interaction with the text.

Stratton’s setup of this binary is intriguing to me because I’m tempted to agree with it immediately—but is the claim that the words are owned by Milton and the white space by Johnson really tenable? No; both authors are involved in a constant, even posthumous, perpetuation of the cycle of borrowing and encountering. And there is as much physical as there is semantic material to be borrowed. Johnson’s prior work with concrete poetry and visual interpretation makes itself plain when he says, about Radi Os, that he wanted it “also to be a Blakeian [sic] illustrated work,” one where “each page is a kind of stanza, but it also is meant to have a wiry visual strength and tension”; the project would accomplish more than “re-write the story,” though he did also accomplish this. (“BEAM 28” of ARK, the great serial project of his life, contains the line, “TO GO INTO THE WORDS TO EXPAND THEM,” further evidencing Johnson’s awareness of the materiality of language pre-Radi Os.) Radi Os, taken in toto, is at once a narrative, a deconstruction of that narrative, and a record of the conscious, visual interaction with the material text of Paradise Lost. Like Holmes’s work with Dickinson, which superimposes new and vibrant visual associations over the stony façade of the canon, Johnson’s work leaves according material and semantic records; it weds two consciousnesses across oceans and across centuries. Both authors name the text that they erase, making a radical refusal to cover the tracks of their process. Both works are generative; Laura Wetherington has also applied erasure to Dickinson, and poet Michael Koshkin’s Parad e R ain is an erasure of Paradise Regained.

More than anything, though, both Johnson’s and Holmes’s works are openings. Radi, the first half of Johnson’s title, suggests “radii, rays, rods, beams, [and] spokes,” according to Stratton; Os suggests “the circles from which these radii emanate.” (I would add that the resultant word “radios” suggests broadcast, and a plural broadcast at that—many speakers speaking, though with a more positive connotation than Francis Ponge’s 1946 description of the radio as “the buzzing,
beaming little second garbage bin!”) And Holmes traces the ways in which contemporary history can’t help but infest the texts and testimonies that preceded it. Fittingly, these erasures are records of consciousness’s dissolution while at the same time it becomes solvent again, moving between ruin and creation to leave testimony to each while authoring new testimonies themselves. And this cycle, if properly construed, will continue ad infinitum as long as there are writers and readers to read them; these works of erasure will themselves be subjected to the ballpoint’s black line. But even before then, they will be subjected to pairs of eyes—which, as Beachy-Quick reminds, can only see what it is that they see. From this, the self makes and is made. “I, the lever (eye),” Johnson writes in ARK. And again, in the dedication of Radi Os: “It is the book Blake gave me… his eyes wide open through my hand.”

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