Zither and King Lear:
Similar Philosophy, Different Text

by Monica Sirignano


Zither & Autobiography
Leslie Scalapino
Connecticut: Wesleyan, 2003
Paperback, $14.95 (ISBN 0-8195-6477-X), 110 pages


Leslie Scalapino's Zither, from Zither & Autobiography , portrays a world of extreme destitution and confusion — a world where imperialistic beliefs stand at the forefront, and the result is a society plagued by inhumanity and disrepair. Much like the text it is based on, William Shakespeare's King Lear , we follow in Zither the journey of Lear through his own subsequent sense of loss and realization regarding society's true, inhumane nature: a realization which eventually culminates in his own isolated madness and destruction. But Scalapino employs her own tools in Zither. And although she does remain true to the basic philosophy of Lear, her story is quite different.

According to Scalapino, Zither is “a rewriting of King Lear as Kurosawa's Ran .” (72) This statement is somewhat of a conundrum, since Ran also happens to be a rewriting of King Lear ; and ultimately Scalapino's Zither , like both Ran and King Lear , is its own entity. But perhaps Scalapino was attempting to find the point of change between King Lear and Ran , and to represent this in her text. Because movement and change are such integral parts in Zither , this point of change could, in fact, be what she is after. Or partially what she is after. For to suggest she has only one intention in Zither would be undermining the complexity of her text.

In Scalapino's Zither , as in Ran and King Lear , Lear is both the cause and effect of an imperialistic society. His eventual downfall and descent into madness are reflective of the world around him. He becomes what he has created, so to speak, and Scalapino uses not only the basic story of Lear to illustrate this, but also technical aspects of the text. As Lear becomes increasingly mad, the text becomes increasingly disjointed, even staccato, and by the end we are left with a senseless self-dialogue of fragmented moments.

Scalapino focuses on these moments throughout. The end, of course, shows moments in their most fragmented form. But in the beginning there is almost a lucidity, or rather a continuity of thoughts, which in some fashion represents what Scalapino is going for; for this is mainly a text of thoughts, a text of the mind. In Lear and Zither , moments are all individual thoughts to some degree. The freedom that Scalapino is searching for is a freedom from the mind, a freedom from those things that imprison us — in Lear, it's an imperialistic society, his own construction, and his own mind or self. For Scalapino it's all these things and language. By attempting to deconstruct language, which she does throughout, and by employing the story of Lear (thereby simultaneously deconstructing Lear), she's attempting to free the text from all constraints, whether they be imposed societal ones or those that are language-based.

These societal constraints and the influence of societal beliefs can be seen particularly in Scalapino's use of the word “one”. One of the many examples of this occurs on page 56:

One's return to the place of action — which is happiness (of kid there) — occurs by observing one's appearance in ‘physical' motions; our convention of being separated here is ‘foreknowledge'.

In this passage, it is not only the use of the word “one” that exemplifies the imposition of societal beliefs (the reader feels almost as if something ingrained is being recalled); but also what is said by the actual “content” of the text.

Consistent use of the word “one” is one of the tools Scalapino employs to create a sense of self-consciousness throughout Zither . While reflecting the imperialistic society that both Zither and Lear get at, this self-referential or self-conscious style also adds an additional layer to the portrayal of these thoughts/moments, furthermore serving as a device to deconstruct the text. The reader is always aware; the text is always aware; and Lear is always aware, perhaps even painfully aware, of everything around him. Scalapino's use of quotes and parentheses also intensifies this self-conscious style. There is no escape and the text actually becomes more self-aware throughout the first couple sections. This freedom may have been achieved in some way by the end, at least for the text and Lear: for the text has become utterly frayed and Lear has gone completely mad. Death, of course, offers a form of freedom.

Scalapino creates her text as surface. This is not a negative connotation of the word surface, but rather the idea of a “surface” plane of observation; she proposes in Zither the idea of divorcing oneself from oneself by means of this “surface,” and thereby acquiring knowledge of oneself. Often throughout we hear references to the act of “getting to know oneself,” to the act of seeing and understanding what one (including the text) truly is. And perhaps Scalapino believes that through this dismantling of conventional notions of “self” and the actual act of removing “oneself,” one is able to break down to the most minute parts, thereby understanding one's own true nature.

Scalapino's text is movement based. There is movement throughout, and we can see this especially in the way the text is constantly morphing. For example on page 72:

in fireflies crowds sides running on its sides
crowds running on its sides wallows on black grasscrowds wallow eyebrows on moon-edged-horse-blackness
crowds wallow grass horse gliding moon
eyebrows arching through grass wallow moon
eyebrows wallow crowd on the horse

Something here is happening, morphing, moving. However, besides movement, this passage also presents a feeling of being stuck, almost as if the text / the thoughts were trying to find the right formula or combination before they were actually able to move on. And within each moment, Scalapino understands and shows us that there is always something “occurring.” Scalapino shows us this “occurring” so well in Zither , particularly through her use of repetition. If she hadn't employed these technical tools both of moving and stasis, Zither would not be as effective a text.

While illustrating the destitution of an imperialist society, Scalapino's repetitive images in Zither also reinforce concepts of movement. Images of cattle, colostomy bags and sand bags appear throughout. People are the cattle being herded. And I did wonder if the colostomy bags and sandbags were one in the same (both carried at different times) — another example of morphing: rechanneling the body, rechanneling the land and sea

In Zither , Leslie Scalapino has created a text that is so base, deeply channeled, and yet, ultimately surface. Engaging this paradox through both “content” and form, she reaches a complexity and depth perhaps rarely achieved in inter-genre poetry/fiction. This is certainly not an emotive text, as I believe are her predecessors — Shakespeare's King Lear and Kurosawa's Ran. Rather, Zither is a sparse epic about ultimate human and textual freedom. And it's through her deeply paradoxical style that her engagement with these other texts allows Scalapino to create her own, very different text.

BIO: Monica Sirignano is an M.A. student in City College's (CUNY) Creative Writing/Literature program; she plans to continue with her PhD in the fall. Monica is currently at work on an experimental novel. She is also a playwright and poet, as well as Artistic Director/Founder of Screaming Venus Theatre Company. Previous publications include Encore! Magazine and Hamptons Magazine , among others.

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