Seattle, WA: Wave Books, 2016. 126 pages. $18.00.
“I began the day . . . ” opens each new line of thought in Renee Gladman’s latest book, Calamities. This repeated gesture attempts to alleviate what the beginning of any new project yields, anxiety at the prospect of an unknown outcome. Gladman’s repetition is an insistent endeavor to work through the anxiety of nonnarrative (something that doesn’t seem to obey a schema) by way of narrative (something with a beginning, middle, and end), even in the face of experience that tells her every beginning, every narrative, and so, in one sense or another, every system of meaning, falters, requiring her to begin the story again.
Calamities collects a number of brilliantly constructed and intensely intellectual short essays, each of which is a “calamity” building on and charting the fields of art, identity, and work, both in a meta capacity as Gladman outlines the struggle of writing this text itself and others, as well as the work of teaching writing at “the university level” and all the political maneuvers that go along with it. Perhaps what makes Calamities so remarkable is how the formal and syntactical choices Gladman makes are direct enactments of their content. Maps, geography, folds, facets, grids: all of these populate the text blocks in a spectral form, the blocks themselves, depending on context, acting in turn as mimetic interpretations of their content—to follow the metaphor through, haunted by it.
The book’s general shape is also haunted, a wide quotidian gesture focusing down to the recurrent concept of “the book at the end of the book,” which ultimately finds its shape in the impressive series “Eleven Calamities”—itself already a calamity because there are fourteen numbered sections in the sequence. “Eleven Calamities” acts, as so many of the pieces in Calamities do, as a treatise wrapped in an artist statement wrapped in a statement of process. It, and Calamities as a whole, serve the onion image with which “Eleven Calamities” opens, an essay within an essay, its richness and depth exposed gently and with care.
The main gesture in Calamities is one of schematization. In a conversation with a group of her ex-lovers, Gladman and the group begin discussing points versus lines:
One of our party was insisting that the “point” should be our vehicle of expression (“not the line”) since it was the point that was the base of all communications. . . . I did have to counter that though the point may be the base of all communication, it could not function as the base, because most people did not begin looking at points until they became lines. (17)
This moment occurs early enough in the book that it becomes a touchstone for everything that comes after. To unpack it a bit requires a look at how Gladman approaches the discussion of identity and community. The group consists of individuals just as the line is made up of points, just as a word is made of letters, sentences of words, grids of lines, maps of grids, etc. In short, everything boils down to the relationship between the point and the “gesture” of the line. Each calamity then is a point on a wave moving toward the definite boundary of the shore then back out again, singular but part of this larger motion.
In a late moment of transcendental schematization, Gladman illustrates how universal and quotidian these principles are:
I began the day connected by several moving points on a grid, in a constellation of live objects, in a house of memory. My body was a container for the conversations occurring on the floors above and below me, the messages being left on my phone, and the letter I held in my hand. I was a shape but one where everything inside me was in motion and I was trying to hold it mathematically, trying to be a pattern in the world. I woke lying beside something that was geometric but also a poem. . . . The points of the grid had words attached to them, words hanging in a row of six to ten groups, and had spaces where I could stop and see that I and everything inside this grid were moving, as was the grid itself. (60)
Here Gladman revisits a point she tries to make earlier in the book to her students: that in poetry there is “a grid above and a grid below.” In the way the poem is a kind of complex intersection of different meaning schema overlapping and shifting, the poem is very much like the poet.
A large part of the project of Calamities is exploring intersectionality. This intersectionality finds its manifestation, as one might expect, in identity; Gladman is working to hammer out how her place in so many communities (the black community, the queer community, creative and activist communities, the community of educators) fit over, across, and against each other—how she is a point on a grid and a line of that grid and a whole grid on her own and another grid and another all in various relationships to each other. What’s so interesting about Gladman’s mapping is that it’s of a world and an individual with ever-shifting centers, centers the writer is arguably trying to capture and fix to something solid. So much of Calamities explores the attempts we make at containment; about naming; about lines and boundaries, borders and crossing them; the journey and quest, terms Gladman uses, of exploring the interstices; the “problems” inherent in any moment as we live it; the problem of being above and within the systems of meaning we create, the categories to which we belong.
But these categories never hold, and what seems to be Gladman’s truest depiction of what happens when the grids shift is the ever-present fog in Calamities settling in suddenly and slowly making its way out again. Gladman’s interest resides most in these places where the systems we build break down. So often these places arise anytime we attempt to put the systems we create into action in our daily lives. This is life as we live it, a kind of indistinct haze from which we must constantly emerge and say, “I began the day,” knowing that by the end we will have become someone completely different, and the world completely new.
Through this sharp, dense, and utterly rewarding book, Gladman manages to achieve an impossible balance between the intellectual rigor of an academic, the linguistic sensibility of a poet, and the probing logical fantasy of a visual artist. It’s appropriate that Calamities would enact this sort of intersection of identities—that it would shift tectonically between them, shimmering all the while. A must-read for creators of all shapes, or even better those creators who shift shapes, who name in a number of languages, who can’t think of themselves as any one thing—so in that way, a book for everyone.