A Translation of Space(s)

by Wendy Tronrud


I do not understand Norma Cole's poetry. This bold
and ostensibly self-defeating statement may suggest that I should not attempt
the impossible
and p r o c e d e to write my thesis
on a poet whose work I admit that I do not and perhaps cannot under
stand. However, it is
this impossibility
that I intend to examine. That is, the poetic space which intentionally displays itself as
I would like to explore what this unreadability
for the reader
and under what conditions does a poetry like Cole's lend itself to defy the perhaps naive or
canonical standards of
This poetic inaccessibility underscores the process through which meaning is conveyed: in
other words, the process of reading.
After all, what does it mean to read and to be read?
The act of reading is a heavily connotative act for it implies that a reader u n d e r s t a n d s
under what genre or category to place what is before him or her. If I call Cole's work p-o-e-t-
r-y then I will read it accordingly, which is perhaps why her visual construction of words
and her use of language itself seem to be
The condition of mis reading
is what is most compelling about experimental or avant garde art and writings. The mis
comprehension of a text, if addressed, leads one to think about what it means to read, to see,
to acquire meaning. Ultimately, mis
comprehension leads one to reassess how a text is being constructed; it brings one to a
Brechtian distanciation from the text where one can then
rethink how meaning is being performed by language
and how, subsequently,

the reading subject is also being performed by language.

Space is something that I do not see as a neutral abstraction that is
"a-logical" and "without explanation," as one critic writes of Mallarmé. Space
could not be more political: it is the primary field upon which all order is imposed
and subsequently conceived.

false topography reflecting different intentions
and starving
both sides of the page at the same time
Norma Cole Paper House

Space is what dictates relationships and
associations in every circumstance:
it is the visual plane that structures meaning.
Space is only a universal phenomenon

insofar as it is greatly relevant for
every artwork, genre, city, country, and
increasingly, for the global community.
Space defines how a subject maps his or herself

in relation to the outside world and subse
quently how that subject understands his or her
inside world. Space constructs the inside/outside
dynamic that is neither culturally un

iversal nor absolute. To misread a
text such as one of Cole's is to become de-centered,

de-stabilized, to experience a sort of violence because of it utilization of space. To
misread is also to become dislocated in space.
My thesis will explore through Cole's poetry and other primary sources the
translation of space(s). Using Henri Lefevbre's The Production of Space and Teresa de
Lauretis's Alice Doesn't: Feminism, Semiotics, and Cinema, among other texts, I will stage
the conflict between the homogenous representational space of ideology (Lefevbre) and the
heterogenous spaces that are unaccounted for by ideology (de Lauretis) and how this
conflict is manifest in Cole's poetry. It is this moment of conflict that is pertinent to the
phenomenon of misreading. What misreading implies is that a reading subject is
experiencing a mis-identification with what is being read, either because s-he as a reading
subject is not written into the text or because the text purposely writes its own misreading. In
this sense, the position of mis-identification can be one of empowerment, especially where
ideology is concerned. Mis-identification reveals the presence of a dialogic, an active almost
aggressive interaction between a reader and a text, in which the result, as Judith Butler
writes in "Sex/Gender/Desire," "may entail acceptance of divergence, breakage, splinter,
and fragmentation"(14-5).
In The Production of Space, Henri Lefevbre shows how space is a production of
ideology, how the very basic and often times unacknowledged factor of space, that in which
we live (absolute space) and that in which we think (abstract space), is a pervasive and
powerful structuring force. However, he also points out that space is not homogenous,
meaning, we do not all live and experience our spaces in the same way, but that space is
represented as homogenous. Similarly, in Alice Doesn't: Feminism, Semiotics, and
, Teresa de Lauretis argues that "semantic fields" or "non-linear semantic spaces"
are not constructed by a one system language but "by the multilevel interactions of many
heterogeneous sign-vehicles and cultural units"(35). This is to say that language and space
are neither universal nor linear, although they both are represented as such by ideology.
The crucial factor that is often unacknowledged by ideology is that identity, unlike its
representations of homogeneous space, is not a stable or conclusive unit. On the contrary,
identity is replete with often times contradictory elements that can neither be totally
fulfilled nor completely accounted for. In other words, the moment of conflict that I have
described as instigating a subject's mis-identification also includes the conflict between
his/her social and personal histories.

It is in this sense that I would like to examine how space, both the spaces
within and outside of the text, function in Cole's poetry. I will explore the cinematic,
the poetic...[and finish with a discussion of the ever more pertinent topic of cyberspace--not
included here
. Editor's note]

"writing burnt my tongue"
- Norma Cole Paper House

)Parenthetical remarks(

When I began my research on Norma Cole, I found myself
searching for a space in which I could locate
her poetry. Eventually, I found that I could locate
it in many spaces. Although not all of them "literary," I have
found it crucial to branch out into other disciplines such
as architecture and film in order to effectively create the
foundation for an analysis of Cole's poetry. As a
Comparative Literature thesis, this work seeks to explore
the relationships that exist between disciplines and by
doing so argue that the finite distinction between them is no
longer relevant. (I do not mean to imply that the disciplines are
irrelevant, but that the boundaries separating them are). Architectural
theory may be just as appropriate for a discussion of
poetry as one of poetry may be for architecture. In the
introduction of his book, Architecture and Disjunction, Bernard
Tschumi argues that his use of theory from disciplines
such as film and literature in his discussions about architecture
is necessitated by the fact that any cause-and-effect
relationship between form, use function, and socio-economic
structure has become both impossible and obsolete (4). This
phenomenon can be said to be the result of a postmodern
culture that perhaps is best characterized as a culture
of representation in which "authenticity" has been supplanted
by the simulacrum. Despite the array of definitions, (or non-definitions),
that surround Postmodernism, it, as a theory of culture that includes
theories of the media, cyberspace or otherwise, foregrounds
the importance of the visual for late twentieth century Western European
culture. What the numerous arguments surrounding Postmodernisms
show is how much this period is concerned with
crisis, whether it be the crisis of the subject, the crisis
of meaning, the crisis of captialism, of authority, etc. In the late
twentieth century, nothing seems to be real, everything
is a simulation of difference, an image of an image.

According to Lefevbre, the visual is that which
represents: "in space, things, acts, situations are forever
being replaced by representations. The Ego no longer relates
to its own nature but only to things bound to their own signs
and indeed ousted and supplanted by them" (311).
The visual, the fragmentation or dissolution of boundaries
between various genres and the crisis of the subject are
all very pertinent to not only Cole's poetry, but to my
discussion of it. Writing about writing, about poetry, is as
much about the poetry as it is about the writing itself. The goal
of my thesis is not only to analyse and interpret Cole's poetry, but
also to explore what it means for me to write about it. In
Woman Native Other, Trinh Min-ha states that "to write is to
become. Not to become a writer (or a poet), but to become,
intransitively"(19). The idea that writing is intransiate,
is constantly in the process of becoming, is something that is
integral to Cole's poetry and to my understanding of it. To conceive of
writing as process, as a continually forming and reforming act without
conclusion is to not only recognize the inconclusiveness of language,
but also to recognize that this inconclusiveness contributes to the argument
that there is no one language through which meaning is conveyed.

It is significant that both Roland Barthes and
Jacques Derrida have focused on the crisis of criticism when
confronted with avantgarde or difficult writings. In S/Z, Barthes
writes that "to interpret a text is not to give it a meaning, but
on the contrary to appreciate what plurality constitutes it"(5).
However, Barthes also writes that the work of the
commentary, once it is separated from any ideology of
totality, consists precisely in "manhandling the text,
interrupting it"(15). This manhandling is precisely what
I will inevitably do. Nevertheless, I do not necessarily
agree with Barthes's description of manipulating a text,
because it does not acknowledge the general crisis of criticism
that difficult writing inspires. For his part, Derrida, explains
that for rhetoric or criticism to have something to do before a text,
a meaning has to be determinable (114). However, in referring
to Mallarmé's writing, Derrida illustrates that when a simple
decision is no longer possible for the critic or the reader, the choice
between opposing paths is suspended. This suspension instigates a crisis
of criticism that obstructs the critic's ability to decide on a meaning.
As for my thesis, the non-traditional handling of a poet and
her poetry is all perhaps in recognition of the crisis of criticism and
the intransience of writing, both of which are essential components
of Cole's poetry and of the act of reading and writing about it.

In creating a visual poetry, (a poetry that utilizes movement much like cinematic
images do, which through their movement on the screen, create a narrative, or, in some
cases, a non-narrative), the way in which the words function upon the blank space of the
page becomes essential. In Memory Shack, a poem from Moira, Cole cites the reader as a
spectator: "a string shadow or space / the spectator is alive / as a messy site" (20). Words
understood visually on the page can become much more then signifiers that are locked
onto a specific manner of signification, but they can, like images, move on the page creating
multiple readings, readings that are both visual and connotative. In his essay on Mallarmé,
Derrida describes this phenomenon as écriture:

"the marks and white spaces on the page [which] are only one realization of the articulations and
systems of difference upon which the operations of significations rely and which prevent signification
from ever closing on itself or on the world." (7)

Écriture is language that understands or includes the spaces that already exist in language;
Écriture is about writing the spaces back into language, exposing the systems of difference
that make up language. However, unlike images, words are classically understood to
function not in a pictoral or visual manner, but in a stricly signifying sense. Words are, in a
way, locked into the manner in which they are supposed to be read. In a fax that I received
from Norma Cole, where she refers to her recent struggle with an editor concerning the
layout of some of her poetry, she writes:

The titles of these poems are sometimes onomastic in their function, sometimes like introductory or
prestanzic, or, in some cases, want to be read into the first lines of the text, as text. Such relationships are
crucial to the work and to one's reading of it. How this exploration, with its provocations, moves toward
resolution, or new forms, reveals itslef in the more recent work, where there are not titles in the sense of
separators, where the text moves along with small breaks as a serial piece, and where its visual texture in
the page might be experienced as ...BLACK AND WHITE FILM MOVING THROUGH A PROJECTOR, a
composition of light and dark that is constantly shape-shifting.8

Écriture, writing that formally situates itself in the visual, alters the reading experience. For
Derrida, the advent of écriture marks the end of literature as classically understood. It
marks a crisis of meaning because the realm of language has shifted to include itself so that
the "semantic fields" and the "non-linear semantic spaces" of language, about which de
Lauretis writes, become implicated in the writing itself. In other words, the apparatus is
exposed. The inside of writing is no longer insular, but open to the confluence and
divergence of other languages or sign systems.

It is interesting that once a poetry decides to create "new forms," it begins to reference
other medias. A poetry that is visual, that is exploring the visual and seeking to create the
space for other reading experiences, becomes a poetry that feels "cinematic"
"architectural,"or "textural." It also becomes a poetry that can no longer be read as
"poetry;" it becomes a poetry that entices misreadings, that runs over the poetic parameters
of stanza, verse, rhyme and rather then evoke readings, evokes experiences of readings.
The poetry becomes writerly rather than readerly, to use Roland Barthes's distinction.

Misreadings, in their renaming or re-experiencing of images or words, can ostensibly
create the space(s) in which seemingly homogenous meaning and experience can radically
be undermined. Misreading can bring to the surface differences that are hidden by ideology
and consequently underscore transparency as the artifice that it is. It is my argument that
radical poetry such as Cole's constitutes a remapping of meaning as plural and
inconclusive, as open and therefore always subject to change, as above all heterogeneous.
However, this remapping entails a certain condition of being lost, of accepting the horror of
being lost. Really, it entails nothing other than what is already there. But to foreground it,
to make this the ground from which to work, is to not only defy certain standards of
readability, it is to create a space of destitution with which the reader and writer are
confronted. The reader can no longer be a passive spectator expecting a condition of
meaning that is predetermined and hence readable, but the reader must learn to reread the
spaces in which meaning is formed and therefore reread new spaces in which new forms
and or meanings can be created. The reader must examine the power relations that make
certain dialogics possible and perhaps question these dialogics in the hopes for new ones.

Poetic Space: Paper House

"moving about in worlds not realized"
- Norma Cole Paper House

Paper House - space of violence, space of destitution. House of a book made of paper, paper
housing spaces, spaces inhabiting the house of paper. Paper House a space of fraility where
the structures are showing through the decor. The House threatens to fall, to cease being
the protective structure that it is desired to be. A House is a space of shelter, one that like
the apparatus seeks to veil all signs of turmoil from both the inside and the outside. Once
the structures are bare then the inside and outside are no longer protected from each other.
The outside can see in and the inside can see out but be seen by the outside seeing. A Paper
House is one that does not promise shelter. It promises transparency, not the transparency
of meaning, but the transparency of structure. The apparatus is thus seen as structure that is
structuring the internal and external spaces. The idea of the Paper House indicates the
importance of the boundaries that separate the inside from the outside. This distinction is
one of the fundamental bases for our understanding of our world; it allows us private and
public space divisions. It attributes to our understanding of our bodies and their relation to
the space that they inhabit and are subsequently framed by. If this division is weakened
then bodies are exposed, violence is exposed, the boundary between private and public
space is eradicated.

The notion of the House functions on various levels in Cole's poem. It is that in
which we live and that with which we speak. It is a structure, symbolic of the apparatus of
language, symbolic of the nation. The House structures us, it defines our notions of the
spaces in which we live. In The Politics of Poetic Form, Bruce Andrews writes that political
or "radical" writing "reads the outside, it doesn't just read itself" (24). In many ways, the
House is the boundary marker between inside and outside space or between private and
public space. A Paper House is a visual manifestation of language. It is the walls, the floor,
the doors that we shut, for without language they all disappear. The House reveals the
architectural importance of space and of language. It is a rudimentary structure like that of
the alphabet which structures Cole's poem. The House reads the outside because it defines
it. Similarly, Cole's poem reads the outside because it reveals it.

The form of Paper House incites many issues concerning the structure of language in
poetry. There is indeed a poetic architecture that constructs how a poem can be read. Be it
stanza, verse, fragmentary form, the architecture of words builds the walls of the poem, or,
in this case, takes those walls apart. Cole's poem is divided into twenty five small poems,
one for each letter of the alphabet except for y and z. Almost instinctively, one looks for the
logical correspondance between each letter and its poem finding that the connection, if
there is one, is not obvious, perhaps is not even there. Under the seemingly elemental
structure of language, the alphabet, there lies a heavy and complex network of signs and
meanings that pull with it numerous histories of memory, experience and violence. That
the poetry consists of the same letters as the simply laid out alphabet reveals the inherent
inconsistencies within language. Which is to say that the process by which meaning is
conveyed and constructed is neither linear or clearly maintained: there is always a certain
violence inherent to the act. In poem "d" of Paper House, Cole writes:

why does it turn to me, a reductive story all white, all red
I'll jump into the sea
dig a hole with both arms, bury eyes in it
a nation that apologizes to its war dead, securing the chain
that binds both arms


(excerpts from a Senior Thesis, 1998)

WORKING NOTE: Wendy Tronrud

Throughout the process of writing my thesis, I have been constantly asking myself
why is space important, why is poetry important, and why is it important that I am writing
my thesis on them both? To a certain degree, it is easy to throw around theories about
gender, the crisis of meaning, the crisis of the subject and so forth, without recognizing the
important role that theory, art, literature, poetry, architecture, etc., play in actively shaping
our conceptions of the spaces in which we exist and subsequently the ways in which we
define ourselves and others. It seems like such an inconsequential thing to write a thesis on
an avant-garde poet and admittedly it is. At least, to a certain extent. Who reads Norma
Cole anyway? Certainly not academia. Certainly not the general public. Whoever that is.
Her poetry is difficult. A difficulty, however, that must both be understood in relation to its
opposite and in relation to a specific historical moment that happens to discourage
difficulty. At least at the level of the arts. A difficultly that must be examined in order to
ascertain why it is that it is named difficult and why it is that clarity is important to begin
with. Clarity, as does everything, has a price and that price is arguably paid for by those who
are excluded from the vision / representation that defines it/.
I began my thesis with a simple statement: I do not understand Norma Cole's poetry.
What this means exactly is, of course, unknowable, but what this means for me to say it is
that I freed myself from the responsibility to have to know something enough to write
about it. This confession has, ultimately, enabled me to write. And as it has enabled me to
write, it has enabled me to write "intransitively," as Trinh T. Minh-ha says. To move in
different spaces and to rethink the spaces with which I thought I was already familiar.
Bio: Wendy Tronrud has recently finished her B.A. degree in Comparative Literature at
Barnard College of Columbia University. This is her first publication. She is now living in
France where she teaches English. Tronrud has worked at two film festivals:
"L'international festival du film des femmes" in Creteil, France, and the "New York
Lesbian and Gay Film Festival" in NYC. Her laser copy tryptich, "In Site," --a piece dealing
with space, identity and the city--was recently shown in NYC.

go to this issue's table of contents