Randolph Healy: The Eighteenth Letter

I must have been more than half way through Joan Retallack's Afterrimages (Wesleyan University Press, 1995) before I noticed the second "r" in the middle of the title. What a shock! A displaced letter in the middle of an established order. Words became highly unstable, fee/free, a single mutation launching them into an entirely different semantic field. It seemed wonderfully arbitrary. The reader was free to enlarge the scope of the poem in almost any direction by following such leads in whatever way they wish. Freed by just one letter. Her own initial. I couldn't stop thinking about it. As if a letter could make any difference, xx xy. The individual as catalyst, or intruder. Yet, when spoken, the stowaway is inaudible. Only by an artificial pronunciation can it be sounded, artificial in the sense of not being naturalised. In print, expectation made it invisible, only chance revealing it. Afterrimage. What comes after rimage? The word was not rhyme, I noted, but something broader, less familiarised, rimage, French sounding, for some reason suggesting tradition, craft, making. Poetry that leaves craft behind it or, the opposite, poetry that comes after craft. Then there's the rim, the edge of something circular. And what something,? Mineral, biological, sociological, metallic? Retallack's machine made of letters. The rim age, the age of rim, going round in circles, falling off the edge. Semantic free fall. Whose idea are these? The author's? Mine? Can one own ideas? In any case, where are the boundaries of rimage and who decides what goes inside them?

The interpolation by no means erases the first reading, after-image, the ground note against which the above harmonics sound. Though let's not let that go unquestioned. For one of the way this work proceeds is by suggesting something then its opposite, just as the after-image of a colour is its complementary. So there is no ground note, in the sense of a fundamental reading against which all other possibilities must be measured. Yet its absence buzzes continually. The afterimage won't go away without making some kind of impression. Image+r = mirage, the image is polluted, though without appeal to some absolute it may not make sense to call it illusory. And as with a semiconductor, it is the presence of the impurity element which allows one to build circuits. The blurb on the back states, "All of civilization to date, all of history is after all aftermath, afterthought, afterimage." All of history. That's a fairly hefty circuit. In a book of such tracings the idea of persistence of vision is peculiarly apt. The Oxford English Dictionary describes an after-image as "the impression retained by the retina of the eye, or by any other organ of sense, of a vivid sensation, after the external cause has been removed." (O.E.D. 2nd edition). In Retallack's poem language is such an organ of sense.

It never occurred to me that the supernumerary letter could be just a typo. Which is odd, in that in almost any other context I would have assumed it as a matter of course. It is perhaps the facsimile of error, something not out of place in this book of appearances and disappearances. The Redcrosse Knight in Spenser's Faerie Queene endures long periods of error as a necessary part of his quest. As it happens he is glad to come out the other side of it. Yet the confusion of Duessa and Una is the engine that drives book I. Similarly, error is central to modern science. No matter how refined the construction of a measuring instrument, there is a necessary error in its readings. It is often from such gaps in the pavement that new theories sprout. Apart from instrumental error, there is the more fundamental Heisenberg uncertainty. That is, even with theoretically perfect instruments, there is a limit to the accuracy with which the momentum and position of a particle can be measured. While this may seem a relatively easy hardship to endure, it meant the end of the clockwork universe. Here, if the initial conditions of every particle could be known, every subsequent motion could be predicted. Given Hobbes' materialism in which consciousness itself was merely a refined form of motion, this eliminated free will. Some of the quantum theories of consciousness appeal to Heisenberg in order to restore the possibility of freedom. This interplay finds constant expression in the many forms and thematics of this work, the subtitle of which runs: "Afterrimages in what follows were / determined by chance procedures." Speaking of the process of evolution, Jacques Monod, in Chance and Necessity, said that "a truly blind process can result in anything, even vision." So randomness leads us into complexity, diversity and the appearance of structure.

Consider page 8:

he said all out of proportion
not a board game
natures former artifice
perhaps the social drama analogy
HOW TO eat a ___________________ and stay on a diet

	  all     of     tion
	   oar   gam
      rm art

The after-image, consigned to an irrational underworld below the dividing line, is only a partial memory. But, as the absence of vowels in the second line shows, even the primary image is selective, an anti-eidetic aesthetic. At every point the poem opens out. The missing apostrophe in nature's/natures suggests plurality over possession, the latter ghosted by the apunctual conventions. The lack of gaps in the first two lines is no less expressive, for instance, the airless claustrophobia of the first line, the idea of trying to find space where none exists, or of how far one can be deformed and still recognise oneself, and on and on. And which of the phrases are the object of he said? Do we move backwards or forwards? In the absence of cues various reconstructions are possible. Which is the right one? Which one do you want to be right? Then there's the way those macho caps in HOW TO throwing a feminising backlight on the previous lines, while providing an absurd context for such stereotyping. More syntactic strumming occurs as a third term, "former", prevents collision between "natures" and "artifice". So, artifice gives form to nature, which would otherwise sink into chaos. The missing mark of possession might suggest the lack of legitimacy of such a project. An alternative reading: natures, i.e. many different wild landscapes, are something that belong to a former time, all of which have met and ended in artifice. To take another tack, nature is the former, i.e. the material substrate which shapes the ways in which intellect or culture may act, the nature nurture economy. Then there's the hint, bringing us back to the after-image, that nature, as we experience it, is both artificial and out of date. Post sensual processing refines the "natural" impression to such an extent that the idea of experiential atoms hypothesised by logical positivists becomes untenable. And the time lag involved in the mechanics of perception of course means that even adepts who live entirely for the present moment are in effect living in the past. But is this a natural or an artificial way to read a poem? Instability gives movement as well as range, the board game may suggest corporate shenanigans, or an actual game, like chess, reminding us that where once the king was the most powerful piece, now it's the queen. Or is it more a game of chance than skill, ludo, snakes and ladders, (in the Egyptian original there were, as in Eden, snakes but no ladders.) Here chance, like cadence, the two having a common root, results in a nimble sonic/semantic music.

The question of what the word random might mean is difficult to answer. As far as calculators or computers are concerned, their so-called random number generators display a particular term from an obscure but completely determined mathematical sequence. One can choose to enter the sequence at different points and make a connection between consciousness and chance but the concept is hardly any the more illuminated. A conception of randomness as that which cannot be known is also available. Again the definition is in terms of mind. (Was there no randomness then before life in any form began?) Even that classic example of chance, the result of tossing a coin, is in principle predictable, Newton's laws being an acceptable approximation of all the quantum and relativistic hoo-ha underlying the operation. A slippery concept indeed. Another view is that it is connected with frequency, i.e. that different outcomes should appear with, over enough time, similar frequencies. This is related to the discovery that the digits of an irrational number proceed entirely randomly. In 1853 William Shanks calculated pi to 707 decimal places. However, de Morgan noticed that the digit 7 appeared only 44 times as opposed to an expected average frequency of 61. Ferguson, in 1945, discovered that Shanks had made an error and that his calculation was incorrect from the 528th place onward. This is a rare example of randomness that is not intimately connected with some principle of selection and so avoids the question of who is doing said selecting. All the same, the difficulty of separating order and randomness remains. Even sequences like 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,... can be the outcome of a random process. David Wells, in the Penguin Dictionary of Curious and Interesting Numbers, in discussing the decimal expansion of pi says " such patterns, however, would be expected if pi is truly random. Indeed, every possible pattern ought to appear sooner or later." (p.51) The fact that we fancy that we see "the" pattern is, in one sense, incidental. In another sense, it becomes a powerful resource, one which Retallack uses to supply an extraordinary richness of reference with a minimum of intervention. It also makes the question as to whether the world is ordered or not unanswerable. Any observed order may well be part of a larger random structure. In other words, order as an after-image of chance. The thought that the world might be irrational was disturbing to Pythagoras. Having discovered the harmonic series, that the overtones of a stretched string are reciprocally related to its length, he was possessed by a rational vision of a world. The sequence, 1, 1/2, 1/3, 1/4, 1/5 etc. is still part of the furniture of mathematics. Unfortunately for his vision, he also discovered that the length of the hypotenuse of a right triangle is equal to the square root of the sum of the squares of the two shorter lengths. Thus, if two of the sides of a right isosceles triangle have unit length, the hypotenuse has a length equal to the square root of two. This number, he was able to show, cannot be represented as the ratio of any two whole numbers. That is, the world is also irrational. His disciples were sworn to secrecy. But there was no way they could keep a lid on it.

This may be related to the question of syntax. The idea of correct syntax reveals more about a certain type of psychology than about language. However, I would be a little concerned that a complete rejection of standard syntax in some way keeps the flame of autocracy alight. Reaction invites its opposite and it's a short step back to square one. Using non-standard syntax, to the point of random order, seems to me to be definitely subversive. Things don't have to be a certain way. And I assent. However, the reverse argument is perhaps unduly limiting. I do not consider that the use of standard syntax automatically makes one a reactionary consumerist serf. This is too close to philosophy by decree. Also, non-standard syntax has a wider expressive brief than subversion alone. I suppose what I'm concerned about here is that by simply being against something one runs the risk of becoming its mirror image. To call something non-standard can in itself be a way of saying that the standard is the fundamental measure. In the absence of an absolute order, local regularities may be permitted to demonstrate their own conviviality.

Random methods also undermine the deadly seriousness of it all. The omniscient author is made stand in the corner. The deepest sincerity meets its dipstick at last. And the writer might actually surprise him-or-her-self. This lightness allows Retallack to advert to some very weighty themes without being heavy handed. For instance, the line

Saph [.] gment

wittily expresses a great deal concerning gender, history and visibility with an effect to which earnestness can only aspire. Indeed, light travels through this book along all sorts of lines. Pope's tribute to Newton, unstated, is problematised by the quoted "Newton suffered for many years from an after-image of the sun caused by incautiously looking at it through a telescope". Light as a source of darkness, the quote is directly after another concerning the atomic physicists. Later there is mention of extracting sunbeams from cucumbers, later still, Icarus falling. Many of the texts used date from the Enlightenment, finding themselves precariously placed above an illusory dividing line which separates them from their fragments decayed remains, a take on complaints about the decay of public discourse, or perhaps positing irrationality as the source of enlightenment such as it is, or then again an undifferentiated humus from which anything could spring. The sublinear particles are a subject all of their own, each one suggesting a succession of Rorschach alter-poems.

The many readings which any part of this work suggests make it difficult to quote from in a way that conveys the vitality of the experience of reading it. Lists are bound to appear wooden and belie the poem's inexhaustibility. Its intricacies and interrelationships refuse to be summarised. Imagine a poem as an endlessly resourceful model of the world, of many worlds, page after page a series of interconnected habitats. The use of opposites underlines this humour. In classical logic the entire universe of discourse is contained in the union of a proposition and its contradiction. With its huge time spans and fiery processes this book might be a multi-refracted after-image of the mediaeval idea of a book which would encompass all that can be known. The richness and density are kept, but not the defending wall. A highly structured molecule possessing a memory, weathered by insertion, deletion, substitution and inversion for millenia, can result in entire ecosystems. Then again, without uncertainty matter would be unstable. In entomology, the imago is "the final and perfect stage or form of an insect after it has undergone all its metamorphoses; the 'perfect insect'." (O.E.D. 2nd edition) Afterrimages is written for a generation which has come after such ideas of finality. The letter R is an open voiced consonant, not a stop.

It was Hippasus of Metapontum who, about 500 B.C., first discovered the existence of irrationals. According to legend, he made this discovery while at sea and was drowned by Pythagoreans for his pains.