Renee Gladman’s Prose Architectures: Creative Practice Reoriented as Threshold

Miriam Karraker

Seattle, WA: Wave Books, 2017. 144 pages. $50.00.

Renee Gladman’s Prose Architectures is a monograph engaging with both creative process and what prose is at once. Gladman began drawing while she was in between books, and her sequence of over one hundred drawings asks us to consider where the lines of our bodily existence orient us as she documents and allows a facet of creative process to accrue spatially. Gladman’s lines are very much of the body as it extends the body’s syntax and grammar onto the page, filling it with crossings, cosmologies, topographies rather than legible, discernable language. As I paged through these drawings, they felt familiar, and I searched for words, feelings, and images that resembled the shapeliness before me, but my language couldn’t catch up, which vexed me in the best way. In her introduction “Writing Drawing, Drawn Writings,” Gladman states that drawing “produced a sense that thinking could and did happen outside of language. I saw the act as a line extending from the body through the hand, as if being pulled out of one or let go from one. However, in contrast to writing, this line moved in time with thought rather than chasing thought through syntax.” Encountering Gladman’s extensions in time means encountering her creative process in terms of the body, a step past language into more process-centric territory.

I attempted to find verbal approximations when I first looked at Gladman’s drawings, which only helped me insofar as making me hyperaware of the Midwestern residue I bring to my writing desk (silos, grain elevators, backroad maps), and further, the way in which we use language to order the unfamiliar in relation to ourselves. Gladman uses language as a point of access for her visual creative process: “I began to think architecture all the time as I was writing, wanting language to take the word on energetically. I did not simply want to write about architecture. I wanted to use its figurative power to get further in, and not just further inside the city spaces I was invoking in my work, but also deeper aspects I privileged in my novel writing, such as the uncanny and disorientation.” There is something extraverbal to language and to Gladman’s drawings in the porous space between body and mind, work and process.

What does this tell us about bodies, and moreover, what does this reveal about our bodies’ orientation in and around language? In Prose Architectures, Gladman suggests that prose is both of and beyond the body at once. In the space and time after finishing her book Ana Patova Crosses a Bridge, she returned to drawing “want[ing] to be changed by it.” Gladman’s prose architectures, drawn from the spring of 2013 to the fall of 2014, are an archive of process, and ultimately Gladman started to see drawing as “a means of pulling the act of writing away from the act of making sense, so that I could look almost mechanically at what writing was.” Gladman’s mechanisms of process hinge on repetition but also durational experimentation. What do these mechanisms look like as Gladman is enacting them, I wonder. I almost want to see these drawings installed in a gallery with a video of her in the act on loop, but I think this work would lose its power in a way. To have these drawings in a book with such heft and containment speaks to the way creative process is closed off to the viewer and perhaps even to the artist in some ways. Prose Architectures orients us in the space of the artist’s mind where some kind of language/image alchemy is occurring; the only image of Gladman herself in the act of creating is in the front matter, after the title and colophon, before her introduction begins. We enter the monograph with the image of her at her table, face hovering over the page, pen in hand.

Something that I love about this book is its physicality and heft, and how this helps me enter the work’s air of process. The book is clothbound with an inset paper label image of one of Gladman’s drawings. The title and Gladman’s name themselves are blind stamped, and though the letters are all capitals, they look shadowy, illusory. The pages themselves are of the typical gloss of most monographs, but text and images are given what feels like extra room. The margins on the pages with Gladman’s introduction and Fred Moten’s afterward are quite airy; extra space in the margins gives me room to breathe in the presence of dense prose. What are often dense, terse jumbles of lines are given their own room on each page. Most drawings are just ink on paper, while others incorporate colored pencil or marker, all working in this asemic mode where shapeliness is prioritized and making sense or resembling language at all fall by the wayside. Gladman describes her drawings as “language with its skin pulled back.” Inside this process of pulling back the skin of language, my eye is drawn most to Gladman’s attention to negative space. Some drawings resemble tiny, rough skylines or seismographic readings, and my mind wanders to consider how language can feel so leaden—words said in the imperative, a commanding tone of voice. Other images feel like long rambles. One in particular on page thirty-four looks especially like a convoluted, vaguely circular logic proof: a thin illegible phrase leading to a scrawled incantation, a vertical line pointing to a closed semicircle with lines swooping into slashy prose and giving way to a dashed line, a thickening then suddenly thinning line, a small something said, either a conclusion or an afterthought. This drawing in particular resonated with me as I read Fred Moten’s afterword, wherein he describes Gladman’s concern for bearings.

Bearings allow constrained relative motions between two parts. Typically such motion is rotational or linear. Bearings separate moving parts; they take a load. Bearing denotes the direction one object is from another. Bearing drives motion and also is a sense of its direction.

Gladman’s drawings thus go beyond capturing the energy of a thought or a moment in language on the page; they help us consider this moment of capture along with potential directions of motion and thought thereafter. The accumulation of thought and motion prompts the reader of this work to consider the orientation of language as one that moves toward the future, each page an archive of the mechanics of process gesturing a forward motion.

In this talk about process through drawing and writing, as well as considering what language can be through these modes, my mind wanders back to some research I did with Gertrude Stein’s notebooks at the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library. Besides being full of musings and coded notes between herself and Alice B. Toklas, Stein’s notebooks contain strange drawings, miscellaneous addresses, phone numbers, and grocery and to-do lists. This evidence of process is comforting, as are two erratically scrawled phrases that still resonate: “A sentence means that there is a future” and “A sentence indicates that there is no failure.” As Moten says, Gladman’s work “disobeys completion”—process is ever-accruing, as are sentences, as are language and the bodies that use it as they move forward toward possible futures. In her reorientation toward creative process, Gladman takes prose’s viscerality to its raw, durational extreme and reveals how language propels us beyond the legibility of text.

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