Harriet Zinnes: "I Feel I'm In A Slingshot"

Leslie Scalapino. The Public World/Syntactically Impermanence. Wesleyan University Press (New England). l999, ISBN O-8195-6378 (alk. paper) ISBN O-8195-6379-X-(pbk.:alk.paper)

Unlike the grammatical waywardness of Gertrude Stein (an important influence on the highly praised and prolific California poet Leslie Scalapino), the syntactical manipulations of Scalapino seem calculated. They are maneuvers. John Malcolm Brinnin in The Dead Rose, his biography of Gertrude Stein, explained the Steinian method in the following way:

Language is plastic, but its plasticity must be informed and determined by the philosophy or, at least, by the information it conveys. In her earlier works, Gertrude Stein operated under this injunction naturally ...

I miss such a natural "plasticity" of language in the syntactical fractures of Leslie Scalapino. These artificially forced fractures are particularly evident in The Public World/Syntactically Impermanence. Because the poet, who has very strong political views, must respond to a brutal, violent world in the only way she feels a poet can, through language, she uses that instrument not under a totality of her natural being -- language, body and spirit -- but with a hammer and a rake. (In her introduction to The Front Matter, Dead Souls, she wrote, pontifically, "I'm trying to write the modern world, which requires rewriting it." ) Her method, like that of other Language Poets, is strategically to break down linguistic structures. Scalapino's poetic tactic may or may not be through Ron Silliman's New Sentence but it has frequently the same opacity. Traditional grammar is irrelevant to the poet. As Scalapino writes in her new chapbook, Seamless Antilandscape (Spectacular Bookss, l999), "... language is inherently political. It's its time." Her pages, therefore, do not involve linguistic games. They are serious ungrammatical transformations. They reveal a political struggle, a protest, even though readers may find it difficult to understand how there can be political confrontation and social change through extreme fragmentation of language -- and certainly readers with whom she is in deepest sympathy. Yet the form of the poem, she writes in that same new chapbook, is "that of a social/conceptual deconstruction taking place." Prefixes, suffices, articles, in the poet's work all truncated syntactical elements -- hardly a new poetic method in the last 20 years with the advance of the Language Poets -- are primary toward whatever meaning a reader is lucky enough to cull. Is it the effect of this deconstruction that leads the poet to write, "I feel I'm in a slingshot" in her poem "Friendship," a poem holding the last prized pages in The Public World? It is dedicated to another Language Poet, Lyn Hejinian, who far more than Scalapino allows subjectivity, even the heart, to enter what is primarily a cerebral, objective (Objectivist) poetics.

Scalapino, however, seems enamored of her deconstructions, of disjunction. The reader can (on rare occasions!) enjoy her fun with it as in her discussion of "The Radical Nature of Experince," which is part of this third book of the author's essays, a book that includes equally disjunctive poems and plays. Scalapino can declare throughout The Public World that time is disjunction (and it is always the present tense -- an influence of Stein's "continuous present" -- that absorbs the poet: time is now). She can insist that the mind is disjunction (and only the mind, to the poet, seems to hold the power of action). Frighteningly, at least to a non-Buddhist, Scalapino insists that everything is disjunction, that nothing is real, that all is fiction. Even words, her very tool against political disjunction, are merely play, though at the same time the only reality, we are told, is on the printed page: and that REALITY IS DISJUNCTION. Yet it would seem that the poet suffers no POETIC disquiet about her totalizing disjunctive conclusion in any of the essays nor in the poems and plays she has assembled here. Or is the evidence of disquiet, still only intellectual, in the grammatical scramble of the sentences or in such a poem in Seamless Antilandscape called "hysteria." The poem with its repetitions follows Mongolian (Tantric) Buddhist tankas. Of course, such Eastern influences are common in the arts today. Consider the hammering repetitions of the "minimalist" composer Steve Reich.

There is no question that much of Scalapino's poetic method is the result of the early influence of Asian culture and philosophy. She has even identified some of her formal innovations, as she notes in her Objects in the Terrifying Tense, as an aspect of Zen. "In Zen practice," she writes, 'appearances' which are the world are the same as mind." It is likely, therefore, that it is the Zen influence that makes the mind so important to the poet whether she interprets the mind as action or illusion or reality.

Strangely enough, despite Scalapino's intellectual approach, she does not crowd her prose with thrusts of Heidegger or even with the popular French theorist Derrida -- though her novel Defoe bears their influence. She is cerebral in her own way. Personal history leads her to her primary Eastern influences. It is to the "syntactically impermance" (note the tortuous grammar) of the Buddha that her structural linguistic architectonics leads her. In an interview with Talisman, the poet states that she was raised in Berkeley, where her father, who specialized in Asian politics, was a professor at the University of California She says that she "grew up with students or professors always living in the house who were usually Chinese, Japanese, or Korean ... so we were always surrounded by these influences." When Scalapino was seven and fourteen, she traveled with the family for fifteen months in the Philippines, Taiwan, Japan, Vietnam, India, Burma, Thailand and Malaysia.

Are we to conclude that it is Zen, not a perverse calculation encouraged by Language Poetry influences, that leads Scalapino to divest her sentences of traditional grammar? And does this technique further meaning or at least make meaningful a sincere political angst and desire for change? Or is it just another manifestation of breakdown, this time in the art of poetry, of a society that is violent and barbaric beyond measure? Perhaps meaninglessness is more comforting than meaning today. A traditional lyric certainly would be a lie. Scalapino's "hymmmm" may be the only reflexive answer.

This article will also appear in 'Chelsea'