Tuesday, November 4, 2008
The Age of Huts (compleat)
by Ron Silliman
A text is a plastic thing- a pliable structure that allows inconsistency and discrepancy to exert pressure, without threatening the veracity of the whole. Different texts are built to withstand different pressures -different climates of ambiguity, and ambiguity is essential to any reading, even if it is often negligible in presence. Meaning is engendered through reading, and in that sense it doesn’t inherently reside within the text before the reader engages it. The reader creates meaning, though the text suggests a particular one. A text is more often than not constructed to deter certain pathways of meaning, of reading. The degree of plasticity, how far a reader can push a text’s variance while still maintaining its structural consistence, differs according to the piece. Misreading is a form of active reading, and a misnomer.
In the fourth grade I read my first “grown-up” novel, Melanie Rawn’s “Dragon Prince.” Part of my enjoyment derived from the thickness of the book – it was well over 400 pages. It excited me to place the hefty book on the edge of my desk. The book was essentially a potboiler with dragons and sunstones, but it did operate on a level of sophistication I wasn’t yet prepared for. I encountered difficulty with the text from the onset - my reading of the text fought the text itself. Rawn called the main character the “Dragon Prince,” and in my mind, that meant the character was an anthropomorphized dragon. I made this decision and stubbornly stuck with it, despite multiple discrepancies in the text that suggested otherwise. The image of my Dragon Prince trumped the textual reality of a quasi-political title. I fought the veracity of the text, and struggled to impose my meaning over a non-negotiable framework. Eventually, the discrepancies in my reading reaching a breaking point, and I was forced to concede to Rawn’s textuality over my own.
Some texts are written with the intention towards variance. That is, some texts are written with a great deal more generosity towards meanings “Information leaks through these words.” Ron Silliman writes in “The Chinese Notebook,” “Each time I use them new things appear.” The exact meanings of words, even entire poems, are at play. A word or a sentence changes each time it is encountered, even if the sentence remains unaltered. This bestows the responsibility of meaning onto the reader, instead of the text, and by extension the author. Ron Silliman utilizes a variety of compositional restrictions and organizing procedures in the long poems making up “The Age of Huts (compleat).” These compositional frameworks engender the poetry their indeterminacy, while the opacity of Silliman’s poetry is also negotiated through these procedural structures. That is, without a “narrative,” I found myself creating what amounts to a narrative through my negotiation of the poem’s compositional framework. Silliman allows for the possibilities of the poem, by as reader, I create the possibilities of the poem.
The long poem, “2197,” is perhaps the most opaque of the poems in “The Age of Huts.” “2197” has neither “The Chinese Notebook’s” conversational aphorisms or “Ketjak’s” polyphonic “new sentences” to comfortably anchor the reader. But then, that is only actually the case while reading “2197” for a set meaning. “2197” reads clearly when the reader attunes their ear to rhythm. This music is dependent upon an acknowledgement of the very “word-ness” of text. What we “hear” is a visual pattern of words organized along various lineations. We find familiarity, reoccurrence, in number, as well as in the words themselves. “2197” is structured according to sequences of 13. The piece is divided into 13 poems, themselves organized into 13 stanzas, each with 13 sentences. The sentence is the unit of “sounding” for Silliman, the rhythmic duration. Sentences are scrambled according to grammar, traditional noun-verb relationship, and especially grammatical number. An otherwise clear meaning is subverted through number, in sentences such as “Terms is not undefined but a catalogue of descriptive.” Our desire for sense, the pull of meaning, leads us to read a coherence in the sentence, but the grammar of the sentence refutes it.
At other times, even the glimpse of meaning is secondary to a sentence’s incremental rhythm. Words reappear in variant, but ordered, configurations. “Garbage bags the rags of the glad” is echoed in “Garbage stood on/ the rags waving to the incoming, glad bags.” The words and their figurations accumulate diversity in intention. At times, grammar and sequencing within a sentence falls into a semblance of meaning. We are confronted with statements like “The clock is not the name/ of the act that it represents.” Okay, that sounds cogent enough, but the sentence is then followed by “The lower the/ existence, the higher the experience.” This juxtaposition refuses assimilation, but also invites comparison. We are invited to play in the sandbox along with the poet. The interaction of meanings and “word-ness” rises to a polyphonic cadence. Silliman, far from diminishing meaning, presents a generosity of understanding, through sequence, reoccurrence and accumulation. Not only are sentences reacting to the sentences in their direct sphere, but they also respond to previous and future sentences, even to other poems within Silliman’s larger sequence, also called “Ketjak.”
What sentence gains primacy in a mass of confluence? Amidst the reoccurrence of certain word combinations, is there a certain “order” we can point to as an origin point? My first response was to consider more cogent sentences such as “Information is a sensitivity, not a/ language” as a foundational unit from which more indeterminate sequences were scrambled. But is that actually the case? Can the above sentence really be privileged above “Language in which sensitivity information?” The hierarchy of meaning is, if not abolished, than legitimately questioned within the poem. I came to devalue the coherent sentence as the privileged sentence. There is no hierarchy, only interplay.
Ron Silliman creates a science fictional space within the poems of “The Age of Huts.” That is, he generates a speculative language through defamiliarization and reinvention. “Ketjak” is sequenced first amongst all the long poems, and in its celebratory musicality it establishes a methodology to reading Silliman. Words and sentences accrue upon an initial, solitary phrase, “Revolving door,” which becomes “Revolving Door. A sequence of objects which to him appears to be a caravan of fellaheen, a circus, begins a slow migration to the right vanishing point on the horizon line.” The “scene” of this caravan expands, adding “…men atop their cabin roofs…tiger cages, tamed ostriches…” and much more. At this early juncture of the poem, the visual effect of approaching seems to be approximated linguistically. But Silliman is far too aware of language’s difference from representation. It is impossible to entirely transpose a visual effect into a syntactical one. Language does not visualize, such terminology of image is simply a short hand for something equally interesting. A translation occurs, a subjective act of omissions and approximations. The literal effect of an approaching circus caravan is supplanted by a more holistic expansion. In addition to the narrative of a circus, other sentences attach themselves, such as “The implications of power within the ability to draw a single, vertical straight line,” “Their first goal was to separate the workers from their means of production,” as well as “She had only the slightest pubic hair.” The sphere of the referents expands. The last stanza confronts us confronted with aesthetic, political and sexual terrains stretching over thirty pages.
The personal and the political are intimated, but not engaged on a narrative level. Silliman’s scope of reference is expansive, he allows the particularity of the reader’s focus to be a matter of preference. Statements of empowerment are littered throughout the text, we are told “Sentences do not designate,” “Through misuse arrive at important information,” and “You could start almost anywhere and find anything.” These statements, far from binding, are themselves loose and variant. Through their playful repetition and the shift in context, what sentences they follow and precede, fixity is questioned. In “the Chinese Notebook,” Silliman writes that “What I want, instead, is a recognition of our connectedness.” A poet such as Robert Duncan never allows us to forget that he is engaged in the act of writing, he refuses negative capacity. A poet like Ron Silliman not only prevents us from forgetting, he reminds us we are engaged in the act of reading.
The mechanical act is acknowledged. We are reminded of what we are doing, of the “possible position that words on a page are the language sleeping, waiting to be moved by eyes that move left to right,” as he also tells us of what he is doing: “…I keep writing, I’m much more conspicuous now, people are staring, I can’t hold on and write at the same time, I nearly fall…” This last quote is from the last poem in the book, “BART,” one of two shorter Satellite Texts. “BART” is written in a long sentence, punctuated by comas. Silliman is writing while traveling on a train or subway. He notes both his observances and his act of observing: “I flex my writing hand to ease the pain, see a young man is watching me intently.” We are aware that the attempt to “write down” this trip is one of omission. There is no way to holistically include a train or subway ride in a poem, only to approximate through intimation. By observing or writing a thing, Silliman also alters it. The above-mentioned young man would not be watching Silliman if Silliman were not writing it down. There is no way to observe a thing without changing the thing.
And the thing is only an idea. Pliable, and ours.