Toward a Defense of Formed Content, or Why Leslie Scalapino’s Deer Night Matters
The usefulness of Robert Creeley's formulation, “Form is no more than extension of content,” is that it encourages us to understand the purpose of poetry as the delivery of a content. In modifying this formulation to “Poetry as form is no more than an extension of content,” we can begin to conceive how poetry might again become a more significant site for cultural investigation. While within poetry studies, important claims are made for the “content of poetic form,” these claims are often made in exclusion of poetry's other “contents.” The “how” and the “what” of poetry should not be divided, if we are to begin to locate a poetry and a poetry criticism that is significant for our time. 1
Certainly, much criticism of individual poems does attend simultaneously to their how and what. Yet, overreaching arguments for poetry's significance rarely foreground the complex endeavor of poetry as a kind of “content.” And, indeed, poetry as “a content” is difficult to address given the complex interrelationship between, say, such elusive aspects of poetry, as its context, semantics, and form. Yet to focus on poetry by emphasizing any one of these aspects in exclusion of others makes poetry largely irrelevant to larger cultural critiques. Charles Bernstein points out how in many cultural studies critiques, poetry becomes just one example amidst many examples, reduced to a critic's particular “framing” discourse. Yet, while he provides an important corrective in urging attention to poetic form, he drives a wedge between the how and what of poetry: “If I speak of a ‘politics of poetry,' it is to address the politics of poetic form not the efficacy of poetic content.” 2 But it is precisely the efficacy of poetry as a content, as formed content, that we need to address, if poetry is to matter within larger fields of inquiry.
The lack of interest in poetry within cultural studies bespeaks a larger crisis with respect to cultural authority. While other cultural texts are more simply or clearly “about” subjects of issue to cultural studies, poetry is significant only occasionally in these ways — but always perhaps because of how it does or does not assert its authority. If poetry matters as “a content,” it is precisely in how it makes its what matter. Yet, it is “our” cultural authority (as American, white, middle class, educated, etc., select as these may apply) which is very problematic. At a time in which warring cultures and global capitalism make the very concept of “cultural relativity” a quaint hold over from a previous time, the question of how a cultural producer (whether poet or a critic) should position herself in relationship to “other” cultures, and to “others” more generally, is critical. Yet, while within cultural studies, critics in often unthinking ways retain their own centrality as critics, poets — who often directly and indirectly question their authority — are not seen as very important, if not dismissed out right as regressive. In a compelling critique of this situation, Ron Silliman draws attention to a dominant critical voice within the academy that in its very neutrality assumes a foregone compliance. “Who speaks?” Ron Silliman asks. “The critic speaks but seldom with his or her own tongue.” In an age in which “an absent-but-neutral subject saturates us and represses any dynamic of linguistic innovation,” concerted verbal acts, acts of poetry, of formed content, should be far more important than current cultural practices make them. 3
To focus on poetry as “a content” is an important corrective of our time — not only for the sake of poetry — but also for cultural studies itself. If we are our words as we utter or write them, then the exact “contents” of these sayings are very important.
Leslie Scalapino's As: All Occurrence in Structure, Unseen — (Deer Night) is significant as an “occurrence” of eros. 4 It conveys a heightened sense of love and death as it attends to aspects of contemporary existence that are crucial to what we are now. As an “occurrence” of eros, it aims to reconfigure its audience, change its hard wiring, so to speak, or as Scalapino states, “I just want to wreck your mind.” 5 Scalapino writes, “if eroticism is suppressed (socially or in poetics) in the sense of our not seeing it in or as being the occurrence, that leaves only the social context (which is defining or determining); there is then no other area existing for apprehension or change.” As an “occurrence” of eros, Deer Night activates an experience of eros in the audience, such that we are connected to our larger existence. I use the term eros, rather than Scalapino's “eroticism,” in order to suggest this larger significance. Deer Night is an important writing of eros within a larger Western tradition that includes Plato's Symposium, in which sexual love is linked to the highest reaches of human aspiration, and Bataille's works, in which eroticism is linked to death.
Deer Night was written while Scalapino was traveling in Bhuta and Thailand; and it is a response to Shakespeare's Tempest and King Lear, as she comments, by “being a total rewriting — that is without using the plots, characters, or language of Shakespeare.” She notes, “The intention was for the work to be a state of freedom (eventually), subverting capitalism's ‘imperialism' from the inside.” While it is possible to trace figures from Shakespeare's plays in Deer Night , Shakespeare may be most present in Scalapino's work in its profound sense of love and death in relationship to issues of colonialism and postcolonialism. In commenting on Deer Night, Scalapino tells how it was a coming together of disturbing events surrounding her witness of a Bardo dance in Bhuta. As a ceremony performed by Buddhist monks, this dance is “‘on' one's negotiation of entry into and emergence through death” ( P , 34). Scalapino comments, “at the moment of the whirling figures of Death entering; Westerners ran sticking their cameras in the faces of the bystanders / audience who'd entered the dance bowing to pray, the Westerners refusing to withdraw at the request of the Bhutanese police” ( P , 34-35). This event unexpectedly triggers an early memory of this same dance watched when she was fourteen — both events producing in her the same non-linguistic “spatial-mental gyration,” constituted through the profound experience of the Bardo dance and the alienating Western presence. 6 Writing this non-verbal “memory” through response to Shakespeare's plays, Scalapino translates the power of these cultural events into Deer Night as present tense, ongoing “cultural formation.” 7
In many ways, Deer Night is ‘on' cultural formation through pre-existing cultural formation. As such, it wishes to involve its viewers in the very processes of cultural formation, rather than submerging these processes in a finished, stabilized piece of writing. It is an unmaking of cultural authority that begins with the presumption of its own authority. If an artistic work, or poetry, means within specific cultural sites, because of how individuals and groups of individuals give their belief and attention to these works, these acts of cultural possession can founder amidst questions that undermine any presumption of cultural authority. The centrality of ourselves, our culture, is the problem. Yet, simply to withdraw our cultural centrality for ourselves (how can we be otherwise) while retaining the power of that centrality (as critics, as consumers) yields a hypostatized cultural hegemony. Ultimately it leaves a cultural vacuum, to be filled, if not by ourselves, by something else.
Scalapino addresses this dilemma by making the work itself an active cultural formation that undoes the authority of its own making. It is at once “apprehension and overt… illusion” ( P, 29). As such she wishes the audience not to witness her work apart from it, but to exist “inside formation.” In Deleuze's terms, her text is a multi-leveled “becoming” produced out of a duality between “that which receives the action of the Idea and that which eludes this action.” 8 As As, it is exists as a state of travel, of conveyance, of “syntactically impermanence.”
As throughout her work Scalapino is intent on the relationship between inside and outside. Repudiating throughout her work an abstracted subject and object duality, Scalapino investigates the relationship between two phenomenological sites — that which is experienced as internalized consciousness and that which is experienced as outside of this internalized consciousness — and the dynamic interrelationship between them. Deer Night is an active rejection of all subject-object hierarchies, including an anesthetized respect for the “other” or an arrogant presumption that one is “articulating for others who have been silenced.” Scalapino describes her intention in Deer Night :
In Deer Night , the rapidly changing views between inside and outside in their diverse manifestations produce a disoriented reader, or a “wrecked” mind. In italicized instructions for the play which are meant to be delivered orally, Scalapino comments on the importance of the play as both enacted performance and heard language, to be read outloud and read silently, responding within the play to one man's complaint about this divided effect on his attention:
Indeed, to listen in the unified way this man would wish would be to “ apprehend outside of formation” ( P, 103) . In a play of rapid exchanges between diverse mental phenomena written in a devolving (disjunctive) syntax, all matters of material can be asserted into consciousness. As such, the derelict spaces of Deer Night come to seem one's fondest home and extra sensory perceptions, ghosts, occur here as readily as in Shakespeare:
Profoundly about “(love) this one other seeming to be one,” Deer Night makes way for this very possibility / occurrence, enabling through its devolving syntax the reader's very capacity to take in others ( P , 114).
In order to locate these claims in relationship to specific pages of Deer Night, I have chosen to focus on the first ten pages of this forty-five page poem. Since the process of the writing is crucial to the writing that emerges, it makes most sense to focus on the beginning, which takes us through the initial appearances of Ibex and butterfly / robed man, two of the most striking formulations of the “play.” To separate out part of the work from the rest, however, can only give an indication of how the work signifies, as its ultimate significance resides in its overall process of emergence. Through the process of her writing, Scalapino engages in an exchange between inner and outer, as an initial inner formation once externalized becomes an outer formation, motivating new formation. Bruce Campbell, drawing on Derrida, describes Scalapino's writing process as one of “invagination”: “the outer limit folded back into the interior.” 9 Robert Creeley, noting the achievement of Scalapino's transmutating imaginary remarks, “Leslie Scalapino manages to make a ‘virtual realty' in which reality itself becomes the determinant.” 10 Here, then, reality is the transmogrifying externalization of her own inner processes as these encounter an external realm, constituted through her prior formulations.
While the complexity of what is going on in the first ten pages of this work, not to mention the work as a whole, defies any exact accounting, I will focus my remarks on: 1) the efficacy of her mode of writing, or how Scalapino “wrecks” her audience's mind, making way for new “contents” and 2) the significance of the Ibex and butterfly / robed man figures that first appear in these pages, although in this case I will need to make some reference to later pages in order to more fully suggest their significance.
Throughout Deer Night, Scalapino juxtaposes discursive exposition, written often as fragmentary, disruptive syntax, and wondrous fantastic imagery. By moving between these rather different modes of apprehension, the audience's attention is unsettled. Scalapino begins Deer Night:
After this beginning, two compelling stage directions (to be read out loud) are inserted into the discursive exposition:
These appealing images, linked through the “indigo” and “dark blue,” encourage the audience to attempt to “see” them. Shortly thereafter, it is asserted, “I want to have only literal vision where there is not one's eyes.” This assertion reminds how “seeing” is a neurological process, or what Scalapino calls in multiple works, a “seeing on the retina,” a seeing that is more “literal” as the actual process of seeing, than in the resulting illusory visuality this process produces in our minds. 11 How these neurological sensings produce “inner vision” or “mental vision” is an important subject of this play, as is all mental processing, whether because of verbal or visual stimulation. After initiating the focus on snails in the stage descriptions, snails become the subject of several lines of the play: “The man running throwing snails, and the snails that are being hurled, are qualified by night — are at night only” ( P , 90). While our seeing is extended and delayed by the disruptive syntax, the multiple references to snails — their seeming low life blindness compared to our bright-eyed seeing — forces attention on different kinds of blindnesses and seeings, as we must imagine their far more direct neurological sensings. Or, in other words, no panoply of replete visual plenitude distracts them from making their glittering paths.
After several “hard to see,” imaginative re-seeings of “Man throwing snails” we are introduced to another “seeing,” further compounding our sense of moving between inner and outer:
Presumably (in part) about the use of dye in a medical procedure, the image suggests how contemporary technologies of flashing cameras and x-ray vision in combination with computer capabilities alter our sense of inner and outer. Recalling the “indigo” and “dark blue” of the earlier lines, their beauty now shown perhaps as an effect of a traumatizing medical procedure, well manifests how T.S. Eliot's once rather fantastic etherized body on the table is by comparison a rather streamlined body of a far earlier time. Indeed, the multiple approaches to any one phenomena that our current civilization enables destabilizes “reality” and demands of its writers that it register this destabilization by reproducing its complex new realities as composite figures, showing how interpenetrated by diverse seeings / apparatuses we have become.
In the opening pages, the important figures of Ibex and butterfly / robed man are introduced. Recalling through their fanciful depictions Shakespeare's Ariel and Prospero figures, or perhaps also Miranda / Cordelia and Caliban / Lear, these figures signify simultaneously as sexual, death, and ethical figures, or figures of eros. While they are identified as female and male, they are often presented through opposing sexual characteristics. At times they engage in acts of copulation as entities and of interpenetration as a set of signifiers. Existing neither apart from their sexual attributes, their sexualized enculturation, nor reduced to these identities, they are metamorphosing figures.
Ibex is a testament to how sexuality in combination with sociality binds and liberates, tattoos and activates: 12
Ibex is neither an autonomous self nor a silenced other but rather a fanciful depiction bearing the complexity of an imagined postcolonial condition, simultaneously a figure of mortification and transcendence, abjection and jouissance, carried high and discarded. As a figure of change, Ibex can be seen as emerging through altering political conditions and through Scalapino's faculties of perception / writing. The “Egypt” in her is an ancient glory, a dignity, as well as the state of her exile. As a ritual figure she is marked by the symbols of her sexuality in a painfully contorted, but also victoriously stylized performance.
Throughout the narrative, a butterfly man and a robed man who are “the same” occur. Unlike Ibex who is often characterized by phallic postures — “ Ibex is picked up at the ankles and shoulders by the dancers, held there, she is straight in the air” ( P , 116) — butterfly man appears invaginated:
Both the female ibex and the robed man are characterized as highly sexual, vital, although both have cast off needs for dominating others unlike the “they” who remain duped:
While the butterfly / robed man emerges as a figure far too invaginated to stand for himself, the vulnerable Ibex receives the final command of the play, “Stand and fight.” This queer transmogrification of female and male is brought about in part through acts of coupling, and copulation, locating sexuality at the very center of the play.
In conclusion, I wish to make a few general remarks about focusing on Scalapino's work through its delivery of “a content,” namely eros. As part of a larger book project, tentatively titled The Transmutation of Love in the Twentieth Century, I am looking at twentieth century poets which I regard as writing eros in significant ways. Indeed, I am interested in poets whose writing of eros is an “occurrence” of eros, manifesting three important aspects of eros: its basis in sexual love; its cultural productivity or the ways it is generative of larger cultural and social orders; and its self-productivity, or how love begets love. In other words, I want to show how eros is both cause and effect, source and text. By showing how twentieth-century poetry is a production of eros, I wish to contest Michel Foucault's contention that scientia sexualis was the ars erotica of the twentieth century. By examining the particular ways that poets conceive and convey eros, The Transmutation of Love explores how eros as poetic writing, is vital for cultural renewal and change.
In a more extended chapter on Scalapino, I plan to address how her writing emerges in relationship to Buddhist communities and philosophies, and Bay Area language poetry communities and poetics. I explore how her poetry stems from Buddhist practices that encourage an empathetic identification with suffering but also an exploration of erotic phenomena. With respect to Bay Area language poetry communities and poetics, I wish to look at how language poets' emphasis on processes of defamiliarization as conceived by Russian formalist theories locates itself in Scalapino's work as a writing not only of defamiliarization but also familiarization. 13Indeed the related Brechtian theatre techniques meant to distance an audience from processes of identification and thereby to produce an intellectual, political recognition are replaced in Scalapino by intense vacillations between distance and nearness, defamiliarization and familiarization, effecting cultural and political change within the reading / viewing subject in far more direct ways. That is, she wishes to change her audience rather directly through immersion in the processes of cultural formation itself. As such, she shows the possibilities for a radical politics of eros.
1. Rachel DuPlessis in The Pink Guitar: Writing as Feminist Practice (New York: Routledge, 1990), remarks, “Nothing changes by changing the structures or sequences only. Nothing changes by changing the content only.” (141)
2. Charles Bernstein, My Way: Speeches and Poems (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999), 4.
3. Ron Silliman, “Afterword: Who Speaks: Ventriloquism and the Self in the Poetry Reading,” in Close Listening: Poetry and the Performed Word , ed. Charles Bernstein (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), pp. 366, 361-362.
4. Scalapino, As: All Occurrence in Structure, Unseen — (Deer Night), in The Public World / Syntactically Impermanence (Hanover, NH: Wesleyan University Press, 1999), 88-133; hereafter P .
5. Lyn Hejinian, "Figuring Out," HOW2:7 (Spring 2002) tells of how Leslie Scalapino so commented on her writing in a conversation with Dee Morris and herself. See also, Dee Morris "'Thinking Toward Action': Epistemology, Politics and the Syntax of Modernist Poetics," How2:7 (Spring 2002).
6. In an unpublished manuscript by Leslie Scalapino, Secret Autobiography. Discussed in Hejinian, “Figuring Out.”
7. One of Scalapino's many works, Deer Night has drawn considerable attention. I first heard parts of it delivered orally in a Subtext Reading in Seattle in 1998, and thereafter kept looking for it in Scalapino's subsequent publications. For my own unusual visceral / imaginative responses to this work, please see the last sections of my extended article on Leslie Scalapino, “A Dialogue [. . . about] Love in the Western World / Tracking Leslie Scalapino,” HOW2: 7.
8. Gilles Deleuze, “What is Becoming?” in The Deleuze Reader , ed. Constantin V. Boundas, (New York: Columbia University Press, 1993), 40.
9. Bruce Campbell, "Neither In Nor Out," Talisman (Spring 1992), p.55. Laura Hinton develops and extends these ideas in "Formalism, Feminism, and Genre Slipping in the Poetic Writings of Leslie Scalapino," Women Poets of the Americas: Towards a Pan-American Gathering, eds. Jacqueline Vaught Brogan and Cordelia Chavez Candelaria (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1999) 134.
10. Commentary on back cover of Scalapino, The Front Matter, Dead Souls (Hanover, NH: Wesleyan University Press, 1996).
11. In addition to Deer Night , see, for example, Orion in The Return of Painting, the Pearl, and Orion: A Trilogy, (San Franciso: North Point Press, 1991.
12. The next two paragraphs borrow from my earlier article on Leslie Scalapino, "A Dialogue about Love [. . .in] the Western World'/ Tracking Leslie Scalapino, HOW2 1:7 in Readings Section.
13. For a more extended discussion of familiarization and defamiliarization, see the opening sections in my article on Scalapino in HOW2 1:7, including my discussion of the New Sentence in section 3 and remarks in n.7.
BIO: Jeanne Heuving's current critical project is The Transmutation of Love in the Twentieth Century. Her creative cross genre manuscript, Incapacity, is forthcoming from Chiasmus Press later this spring. She has a lengthy, exploratory article on Leslie Scalapino in HOW2:1:7 and her hybrid writing, “Gaudy Night,” can be found in HOW2:1:4. She is on the editorial advisory board of HOW2, the faculty of the University of Washington, and is a member of the Subtext Collective in Seattle.