“ ‘Ruth’ in Mars
–for Norma Cole

by Susan Gevirtz


This paper was presented at the “Strange Models” Panel,
Second Sunday Series,
11 February 2001


“What is the inscription without a reader?”(82) Begin out of order. In interrogation of the apparently fixed social maintaining fixity at great expense. History—an ordering, order to represent events in invented time. Talking to “the object in us that resists symbolization.”(Slavoj Zizek 7) 

From “Ruth”:

In order

to be conscious is to be torn away from the there is, since the existence of a consciousness constitutes a subjectivity, a subject of existence...Horror is somehow a movement which will strip consciousness of its very ‘subjectivity’...EL[1]

Impersonal vigilance

anonymous vigilance

a garden of stumbling blocks

It’s very simple. They open the floodgates and water pours down at a fantastic rate of speed and with tremendous force, smashing you against the rail (74)                                                                               

...immovability within movement is created and along with it the illusion of order and time                                                                             (Cecilia Vicuña, 25)

Horror walks as a photo of soldiers. Taken by no one

This they is the they Ruth must address. (From introductory note before “Ruth”)

Emanuel Levinas: “...to take up once again the problem of ontology, which is implicitly solved by each one of us, even if by forgetting about it...” (1)

For a minute I thought you were talking to me but then I listened again

...the feminine was otherness itself... (Levinas, 113)

Who is the “us” of “each one of us”? For whom is “the problem of ontology solved by forgetting”?  Who can forget? Is forgotten? That is, smashed against the rail—What is the inscription of “smashed against the rail”? Picking her way through a “garden of stumbling blocks” making movement within movement, what is the shape, sound, of movement within movement? This they forget, deprive another they of face, motion, subjectivity—For the first time in the history of the U.S. the dead returned from the Gulf war were not public possessions. We paid for them but the press and the rest of us were forbidden to see them. They open the cargo door and body bags pour down at a fantastic rate of speed and with tremendous force. But you can’t see or hear them.

But if you see that they’re not there what do you say? Here is the there is a subject in existence not of existence. “there is a spacer”(94). What does the speech of the spacer, what does space, say? What does the space between letters, words, subjects, say, look like, on the page?

the tables are turned

(against the fathers)
cognition re-cognized
(maternity summoning
the self-object)           again
oneself—the spacer —
“called up”

(sayable, thus not —
pictured around the un-
          by definition, in other words

The mother better not speak. (85)

If I the self-object am the not here, and am “called up” by my loud absence, called to supply a Not against which an I am here can be posited, then in “Ruth” the spacer—the self-object that is not her—is enacted, sounded. The spacer is “called up” on the formal profile or countenance of “Ruth’s” pages, the spacer takes up space. Cognition is both re-cognized and reconfigured.

The form of the “(un-sayable, thus not— / pictured around the un-” makes the pages of “Ruth” pictures of the not picturable. The spacer appears as actual blank space on the page, as the many hyphens, dashes and elongated hyphens that mark both linkage of a thought to other thoughts, as well as thought’s impossibility to either continue, or be heard in the medium of this language or by some readers—thus some of the hyphens extend to become lines separating text from text—an absolute bottom line, the place of what can’t appear or the underlining of, the calling attention to the mother's speech, undetectable by most readers.

The pages of “Ruth” hold together as they fly apart, a weaving of rubber bands, or air. The tension spans short poetic line and long-lined prosaic commentary and response in which some parts of the poem write to and elaborate on other parts, between direct conversation with Levinas, with all of “The arbiters at the / heart of the process”(88) and, again, between something or someone that is not audible, or might be heard only as a muttering in the wings, a private conversation a reader eavesdrops on or participates in or doesn’t hear or comprehend at all (depending on the reader). This is also the tension between those who are present, are presented, those who have “proper names”(84) on the pages of “Ruth” and those whose names or person are not picturable, sayable, have no discourse in the Judeo-Christian or Greek traditions from which Levinas’s thinking is derived.

Greek appears (at least three times) breaking the surface of the page and calling attention to the letter, that is, the letter and word as linguistic passage locating the historical sources of the conditions under discussion. Greek, French, parentheses, quotation marks, an equal sign, italics, the last page—a list of “essays on going together” which are not essays and appear with a long dash at the beginning of each “essay” on the list; bold face (musical notation?) brackets } similar to that (and conjuring the poetics) Zukofsky uses in “lower limit speech / upper limit music”—all keep the reader on the hook, without rest, picking through “a garden of stumbling blocks,” taken to task, to the task of attending to the page, seeing “take itself for vision”(94) whether anything besides the usual visible can be seen, whether “—a representation of a / gesture or something / parallel to a gesture” is present.(95; Zukofsky, 138)

Some of the pages engage in a serious mimicry of conventional formal structures they can recognize. For example on the third page of “Ruth” some of the forms of traditional western philosophical thought and argument make a fleeting mimetic appearance. This is a demonstration of how the visible looks, (a demonstration of demonstration). This is also demonstration as subversion, a use of the tools of convention to another end: at the top of the page definitions of the terms under discussion are presented, the page is an actual and mock diagrammatic map out of which “vs.” shines from the middle. Then beneath the diagram, prose is unleashed in commentary and elaboration on the terms and the form in which the terms of the discussion just appeared above. Mimicry is necessary because “Now the man speaks it, it’s visible”(75). Mimicry is one of the only methods available in “call[ing] up” the speech of the spacer, that which cannot be seen—that which is all that escapes the page—like music whose marks can be noted but whose sound must be made by the reader herself—or heard when the instruments (languages) are played. [Played vs. contained] Thus it is necessary to—“un-“ do the terms while employing them, “by definition, in other words / The mother better not speak.” The pages of “Ruth” occur “in other words” in the sounds of “better not speak” a place made on the pages but also existing off the page. Just as “Our physical appearance our greatest disguise”(77) so the appearance of the page in “Ruth” is also a disguise—not “pictured” but proposing a possible heard—lyric of the mother who violates the order of orders. The page poses as face but is actually, face off, face of voice, countenance:


Reading EL “in translation” then reading little bits “in the original”
I have the sensation that finally I am encountering the EL voice (countenance)   (77)

And down the page:

(check Deleuze’s reference to face, and faceity) (77)

What can possibly be heard? And is it necessarily first seen?

Countenance: manner of holding oneself, bearing, behavior... extension of sense from “mien,” aspect to “face” appears to be English use of mine

— bearing, demeanor, comportment; behavior, conduct; behavior of two persons toward each other
— to make a sign, intimate by sign or gesture   (O.E.D)


From “mien” to mine, from “in translation” to “in the original” from: at first the terms appeared to be useful to at closer examination they revealed themselves to be: encounter:

The rules apply only when she can see me. If it’s happening over there and she can’t see it. If I can see it and it hasn’t affected the conditions, but only when I think of it. It begins. And then thinking of it so begins to affect itself and become the conditions. . . . (From “Mars,” the first section of Cole’s Mars at 14)

The affect of “thinking of it” is the conditions of the writing.

Which brings us to where I really wanted to start:  At the first words of “Ruth”:

until a widow
"would that I were thing
this,” think I. "I am
thinking this.”  stranger
uncover your feet          

The italics, the short lyric lines, and the place of this passage at the beginning set it apart as invocation, song, lament. Beginning with Penelope, or Ruth, or any of us, turned into would, that is would as in, it could, it could happen; and we would become wood this widow-thing, by loss of legal wife status—we already are:


look at,


(under the mask of, in the person of—Solon 77)                            

And on the next page:

bust, portrait
dramatic part
legal personality

                                  vessel with a face

“Your secret can always be seen on your face and in your eyes. Lose your face. Become capable of loving without remembering, without phantasm, without taking stock.” (Deleuze/Parnet, Dialogues 78)                                                                                

Penelope’s secret: her nightly unweaving of Odysseus’s shroud. Under his shroud—under cover of “legal personality” could confound her status, secret as guise of fidelity, identity—countenance as not only visible face but the making of a sign, the gesture of a shroud—“to intimate by sign or gesture.” 

Or to “look at” “Behold” but see only “vessel with a face” “mask”: “Ruth” a writing unraveling by night and entertaining suitors by day. In this disguise, by this sign-gesture, she can address, make visible a different event, eventuality, subjectivity. We recognize Ruth’s recognition, no, cognition “stranger uncover your feet” so that you may be identified, read, by your scar.

“they couldn’t take their eyes off it” (91) But they also couldn’t see it, her. Stranger thinking than this silent unweaving, writing—way to recognize a stranger

The way we place ourselves in listening is the door. (Vicuña, taped interview)

for listening is everything

letter’s safety
this is history
go and love
the dead
the cause
they radio
is history

(in “Questions From The Heart of Zoology,” and “Destitution: A Tale.” This passage appears twice in My Bird Book, 60 pages apart on both 32 and 92)

And now I can begin finally, I mean eventually to talk about “Ruth”

As an ostensible biblical woman mother as a possible character, a problem of character a Ruth haunts “Ruth.” Ruth the Grandmother, the mother-in-law, the ruthless, compassionate, the feeling of sorrow for another, to have Ruth on or upon, to take Ruth, sorrow, grief, distress, lamentation, matter or occasion of sorrow or regret; mischief, calamity, ruin; in Hindi a vehicle or carriage—car, or coach 

Again the third page of “Ruth”: a diagram of operative terms, a carriage to ride through “the situation that requires address”:

anonymous vigilance                  is the state of the mother

consciousness                              is the name of the father

nameless state             vs.           stated name

what is this

The state EL describes is the one “known to women.” It has never been “enough” for women to speak it. Now the man speaks it, it’s visible.

The mother-child dyad is paramount paragon paradigm of “being for the other.”

*I will call the parents “mother.” (75)


What is the form of “being for the other?” What is the shape of thinking stitching? Cole: “do you have a problem with my knitting?” (from “Coleman Hawkins Ornette Coleman”) Reading for the other, to the child. “This think I” direct proclamation, naming the conditions of the poem. That is: Motion making motion within motion: “This think I” thus thought is event, thoughtfulness, full of thought together is.  “...Eventum tantum. Making an event—however small—is the most delicate thing in the world: the opposite of making a drama or making a story. Loving those who are like this: when they enter a room they are not persons, characters or subjects, but an atmospheric variation, a change of hue, an imperceptible molecule, a discrete population, a fog, or a cloud of droplets.” (Deleuze and Parnet, 66)

This is the way reading “Ruth” is made—in a rage of “Loving those who are like this”—emanates atmospheric variation. Pass into this weather event present before thought as thinking, also shadow of solar eclipse on the page, ultra sound photo in-utero, this profile here before face, before things add up

we are “characterized” by
light which is not a sum

—and down the page:

as for the subject, it is the infinite regression  (91)

Before face before form before character. Infinite regress, twenty-four or more years of unweaving. “Acts of thought without image against the image of thought.” (Deleuze & Parnet, 34) Instead the event of thought, easily missed as it travels at a speed, a velocity of conflagration. Where does speed of thought come from? What is its shape on the page? “Nor can imagination form a shape”(“Destitution,” My Bird Book, 95). No accompaniment by time. So abolishing form and content and leaving only and. And also is. “For listening is everything.” What is the measure of listening?

The mother better not speak. (85)

The listening of the mother is speech. “light which is not a sum.” Listen in speech that is gesture. “Mein face of mine. Their effect, their measure in the growth of the infant’s body. That clock "The tie between two instants”(Levinas, 80). Two infants, the mother and the child. Before face can be deciphered as seen the sight of the mother is sound is touch. This as transitional object—“Separation is the first fact”(My Bird Book, 93) location of other [and is] not other—Not the Horror: We see the mother thinking—and so she is separate, she is a subject that must be destroyed—Not the invisible editing of the Gulf War cameras and newspeak—but the sight of the mother thinking is midrash, the sight of attention, of play, of absorption as an option, love as event, not constraint:

In other words, in health there is no separation, because in the space-time area between the child and the mother, the child (and so the adult) lives creatively, making use of the materials that are available—a piece of wood or a late Beethoven quartet.
This is a development of the concept of transitional phenomenon.

And later:

Is not this contribution of the devoted mother unrecognized precisely because it is immense?...Once again, let me emphasize, the result of such recognition when it comes will not be gratitude or even praise. The result will be a lessening in ourselves of fear.

This fear will sometimes take the form of a fear of WOMAN, or fear of a woman, and at other times will take less easily recognized forms, always including the fear of domination.   (Winnicott, p124-125)

So deep you be
graven, cut
within my heart
that before me
ever I see you
Covered in thought

(Cole quoting anon—as in “Anonymous vigilance” “the state of the mother”(75) —Middle English from My Bird Book, 94)

Covered in thought is also covered up by their history: “This soliloquy forming me.” The form of “me” talking is commentary outside the polis. Off the page outside of “letter’s safety.”

Naomi and her two daughters-in-law, are all widowed: “Widows we are all widows” These words appear by themselves on page 83 of “Ruth” surrounded only by blank space, and strangely, years after being written, became windows of a future in which Laura Moriarty was widowed by Jerry Estrin’s death—both of whom “Ruth” is dedicated to.

“Naomi suggests that each of her daughters-in-law return to the house of her own mother, as opposed to returning with her to the (more typical) ‘house of your father.’ Orpah chose to return, Ruth chose to go on with her mother-in-law to Bethlehem.”

Rabbinic Midrashim:

AND THE WOMAN WAS LEFT [Ruth 1:5] Hanina said: She was left as the remanants of the remanants {of sacrifice, that is, of no value}.  (Hyman, 141)

That is, she had no husband and no ability to bear sons.


“Turn back my daughters!” says Naomi
But Ruth clung to her weeping, “Do not urge me to leave you, to turn back, and not follow you....Where you die I will die...Thus and more may the Lord do to me if anything but death parts me from you.”   (Hyman, 136- 37)

Subversion through inscription

inscription through anticipation

subversion through anticipation  (90)

—Subversion through alteration of the usual inscription: Ruth accompanies Naomi out of love, not obedience


The object is always waiting. How

do we know what makes it

visible: the object is waiting
the object is visible
waiting is visible            (90)

Begin in anticipation.
Begin in anticipation and remain there

Ruth and Miriam were talking   magic words and no paper   First form is body which is language     I did not ask for form, to be born   I do not ask    we recognize that something is legible not invent a writing never before seen

What does it mean to launch a line of thought? What does it look like—sound resting on sound—how draw a line on the sea?

“upon open form”  (Blaser, 108)

The space between the stars. Not empty expanse. Summon that informative formation space prior to

Myung and I were talking. Form before the page, form is not visible or containable on the page. “More how it works on the page as conductor. Isn’t form desire for some kind of conductivity, conduit of intention?” Exactly at that moment lightening struck outside the window.

Atmospheric condition the dyad.

crib memory

event of eventuality  “the materials that are available”

writing with the remanants of the remanants


Works Cited

Blaser, Robin. “Thinking about irreparables, a talk,” in Raddle Moon, 9.2 (2000).

Cole, Norma. “Coleman Hawkins Ornette Coleman,” unpublished poem, 2001.

_____, My Bird Book. Los Angeles, CA: Littoral Books, 1991.

_____, Mars. Berkeley, CA: Listening Chamber, 1994. 

Deleuze, Gilles and Claire Parnet. Dialogues trans. Tomlinson and Habberjam. Paris: Flamarion, 1977. Translation of Preface and Translator’s Introduction. Great Britain:  Athlone Press, 1987  

Hyman, Naomi. Biblical Women in the Midrash.  New Jersey and London: Jason Aronson, 1998.

Emanuel Levinas. entre nous Thinking-of-the-other.  Trans. Smith and Harshav. New York: Columbia UP, 1998.

Vicuña, Cecilia. The Precarious & QUIPOem, The Precarious Ed. Catherine de Zegher; QUIPOem trans. Esther Allen. Hanover: Wesleyan UP and Kanaal Art Foundation, Kortrijk, Belgium,1997.

Winnicott, D.W.  Home Is Where We Start From.  New York: Norton, 1986.

Zizek, Slavoj. Enjoy Your Symptom! Jacques Lacan in Hollywood and out. New York: Routledge, 1992.

Zukofsky, Louis."A. Berkeley: U of California P, 1978.

[1] Among others Emanuel Levinas is addressed in “Ruth” and appears as EL, and, as the introductory note to “Ruth” says, “The directness of the piece is clearly in response to the hyperabstraction of the official media representation of the Gulf war they called ‘desert storm’”(72). My Bird Book, Cole’s most recent book previous to Mars, also comes into the discussion here, as in the same introductory note to “Ruth,” Cole states that “Ruth,” “follows on its development from My Bird Book, especially the last piece ‘Destitution,’ from its spanning territory between and including prose and the poem.” All quotations without attribution are from “Ruth.”

Bio: Susan Gevirtz lives in San Francisco. She was an Assistant Professor for ten years at Sonoma State University and now teaches in the Masters of Fine Arts in Writing program at The University of San Francisco. Her books include Hourglass Transcripts, Burning Deck, 2001, Spelt, collaboration with Myung Mi Kim, a+bend press, 1999; Black Box Cutaway, Kelsey Street Press, 1999; Narrative’s Journey: The Fiction  and  Film Writing  of Dorothy Richardson, Peter Lang, 1996; PROSTHESIS : : CAESAREA, Potes and Poets, 1994; Taken Place, Reality Street, 1993; Linen minus, Avenue B, 1992; and Domino: point of entry, Leave Books, 1992. Many essays have appeared in literary magazines and scholarly journals. She was an associate editor on HOW(ever) a journal of modernist/innovative directions in women’s poetry and scholarship and on the editorial advisory board of the journal Avec and the online journal HOW2. She received the New Langton Arts “Bay Area Award in Litertaure” in the Spring of 2000. She has recently collaborated with interdisciplinary artist Margaret Tedesco and sound artist Andrew Klobucar. She has been asked to write a play for a poet’s theatre event in the winter of 2002.