Jeanne Heuving

“A Dialogue About Love [. . . in] the Modern World”/ Tracking Leslie Scalapino [1]

Jeanne Heuving

The only description is the weight of the measure itself, the tracking that is the poem.
— Leslie Scalapino, “‘Thinking Serially’ in For Love, Words, and Pieces” (P, 45) [2]
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 that social context (which is defining or determining); there is then no area existing for apprehension, or change.
— Leslie Scalapino, “‘Thinking Serially’ in For Love, Words, and Pieces” (P, 50)

Initially beginning this essay with the assumption I would write it as a fairly standard academic essay, I became aware how my argument was covering over my most significant responses to Leslie Scalapino’s writing.  Indeed, as I came to realize the significance of Scalapino’s postulation, “the only description is the weight of the measure itself, the tracking that is the poem,” I desired to register this unfolding singularity within my own critical commentary.

In the essay that follows, I elect to track Scalapino’s writing of love through an expository form that utilizes seriality in order to address the singularity not only of her writing, but also of my responses.  I begin with my earliest reaction to her work and then turn to consider how her writing changes the way I write this essay.  I conclude by analyzing several additional works by Scalapino to inquire further into her writing of eros.  Throughout the essay, I explore the complex (at times ineffable) relationship between cultural semantics and formal experimentation.

In each section of the serial tracking that follows, I take my exploration as far as seems useful.  If the series is characterized by beginning again and again, I utilize this form in order not to overdetermine the significance of any one approach.  That is, I avoid making any one set of questions the frame of my response to Scalapino’s work, but rather only one way among others into the work.  By making the process of my apprehension of Scalapino’s writing the organizing order of my article, I seek to stay attention on Scalapino’s writing rather than the logics of arguments set into play.   I also wish to make manifest the necessarily partial, fragmented nature of any critical response.

Finding in Scalapino’s work an important impetus for unbinding eros from existing socialization, I aim to further this work by not rebinding these energies through a consolidating polemic.  As Scalapino remarks, “polemics-based writing merely imposes point of view and suppresses demonstration.”  In choosing to present Scalapino’s writing through my responses to it rather than to contain it through a unified argument, I seek to demonstrate its efficaciousness.  


In 1993 when I first read Leslie Scalapino’s The Return of Painting, The Pearl, and Orion: A Trilogy, I discovered a different way to write. [3]   It was the way she created scenes, disrupted them, and returned to them.  It was the repetition and advance of the piece.  It was the familiarity and defamiliarity, the affective and affectless sentences written about people and situations in an area of the country where I once lived that also reminded me of people and situations where I live now. [4] The recognition and method made it possible for me to write a work that I had tried to write for over a decade and that was no more than my many efforts to write myself and my situation, my desire and my social reality.  As I came to write this work, it was important for me to think of each page and sentence of the work as a separate unit that could connect or not connect to the unit before it.  It was also important to hear the syntax of sentences in advance of writing them, as if only through separating syntax and meaning could my stalemated consciousness produce writing.

 My preceding writing got stuck in this quagmire: “In beginning the story she first thought about writing one Saturday morning several years ago while living the uneventful events of that morning she had decided in advance of living them to write about, she could not decide between herself as the central character or someone like her.  In thinking about herself as the main character, her sense of character disappeared as she did not experience her life with anything like the coherence of a character, and in thinking of the central protagonist as someone like her, her sense of events disappeared as nothing so eventful had occurred as her desire to write a story.  Certainly, she reasoned, someone like her could also desire to write a story, but once she had formulated her desire in this way it would disappear into the confines of her story, and she would have no desire to write her story.” After reading Scalapino’s Trilogy, I wrote these sentences: “She was trying to write her way out of a bag at the same time as she was trying to become some kind of success.  The two kept knocking into each other like big boxy shoulders draped in army green fatigues clumsy with sleep in the early morning hours.  During this time, many men with green berets arriving at a beachhead passed through her bed, life.  She was not sure how she knew them or how they knew her.” [5]


Before reading Scalapino’s Trilogy, I had been reading several other “language” writers. [6] Undoubtedly my sense of composing through individual sentences, of listening for and articulating a sense of disjunction between the sound of the sentence (its syntax) and meaning, was developed through reading any of a number of “language” texts.  Only later would I read Silliman’s The New Sentence, to find that through Scalapino’s and Silliman’s joint example, and other writers as well, I had picked up on what Silliman designates as the “New Sentence.”  In his commentary about the new sentence, Silliman observes how all sentences constitute a form of integration that precede and exceed their individual words:  “the child hears sentences before it can break them down into smaller units.” [7]    Indeed, if the sentence functions as the primary way of making sense out of discrete words and phrases, then by casting attention on itself, it breaks with its naturalized sense-making function.  Moreover, like the poetic line that provides a counter stress to the organizing work typically performed by the sentence, “torquing” its usual syntactical emphasis and thereby enhancing “ambiguity and polysemy,” the New Sentence by forcing attention on the sentence itself as a syntactical entity amplifies these same poetic attributes, if differently.(N, 89, 90)   And it is the disruption of the sense-making of the sentence as the very mainstay of normative discourse, the migration of multiple meanings “into the interiors of prose,” that is the New Sentence’s most significant ingress / egress (N, 89).

Yet, it was primarily through Scalapino’s work that the New Sentence became significant for me.  Her representation of gendered subjectivity in relationship to gendered sexuality enabled me to cathect with the persons and settings of her work while distancing myself from those very identifications.  Scalapino, as a superb poet, novelist, essayist, created a protagonist active in all walks of life that could have been myself, and not myself: “There is no low work, but the people recognized the young woman who was not so young, thirty-five, and her function.  Wearing her ordinary clothes, she walked into the high ceiled Mark Hopkins Hotel to a shop in the arcade to buy a newspaper in the heavenly morning” (T, 6).  Or  “She sucked on the man in a tent on the sand by the ocean” (T, 9).


The relationship between poetry and politics is an important but fraught area for investigation. [8]   While the question demands close scrutiny of the large political arenas in which poems are produced and received, it also necessitates attention to poetic form itself.   Innovative forms intersecting with existing symbolic and semantic registers can produce new entities.  However, the complex (at times ineffable) relationship between cultural semantics and formal experimentation can be all but impossible for critical commentary to track.  Indeed, literary and cultural criticism is far better at noting the political and social dispensations of specific verbal formulations than of their synthetic and synergistic effects of texts on readers. Indeed, it may be all but impossible to attest to the precise ways that texts move readers, i.e. emotionally and intellectually transform them.  Yet, to ignore this effect is to fail to consider texts at their most politically efficacious—the ways they change people.  Why Scalapino’s Trilogy enabled me to write my desire, my social reality, is an entirely important political question, yet it is a question whose answer, at least in part, is bound to elude me.  

Joseph Conte in Unending Design: The Forms of Postmodern Poetry singles out two forms in postmodern verse, serialism and proceduralism, as uniquely responsive to contemporary existence. [9]   Both are significant formal developments in a time in which there are no perceivable governing or overriding rules or orders, enabling “the poet to encounter and examine . . . the uncertainties and incomprehensibilities of an expanding universe in which there can be no singular imposition” (U, 16).  In many ways, serial and procedural form as later developments replace respectively organic and traditional poetic forms, refusing the relatively greater symbolic unity of these preceding poetic modes, and thereby enabling more diverse and disparate connections in an increasingly complex world. [10]   While the series sometimes develops itself through intuitive connections and disconnections, other times it moves through aleatory relations in which any one thing may follow another. Procedural form “consists of predetermined and arbitrary constraints that are relied upon to generate the context and direction of the poem during composition,” including such devices as counting words and sentences as well as more rarified specifications (U, 3).  Indeed, the New Sentence might be seen to be the form that is quintessentially serial and procedural, the sentence itself serving as the primary vehicle for serial connection / disconnection, and its pronounced syntax operating as a kind of pre-determined procedure.


In starting work on this essay, I came to a creative / critical impasse.  Beginning with Scalapino’s essay on Robert Creeley, “‘Thinking Serially’ in For Love, Words, and Pieces,” I became immobilized by the contradiction between the particular Creeley that Scalapino’s writing produces and her elision of gender distinctions.  In Scalapino’s analysis of Creeley’s poetry as a response to Elizabethan and courtly love conventions, Scalapino does not consider these conventions for their gender asymmetry.   Indeed, Scalapino does not address how these conventions are highly productive of masculine agency, masculine poetic speech, as it forms itself in dynamic opposition to a female beloved / other. [11]   Yet by not addressing these gendered dynamics, Scalapino seems to move beyond them.  By bringing out the difference Creeley makes to courtly love conventions, Scalapino produces a Creeley that begins to undo these pervasive erotics, without repudiating eros itself.  

In working on this essay, I was pulled increasingly into the desire / logics of Scalapino’s writing, so much so that it seemed I could do no better than replicate her phrasing nearly exactly.   The cul de sac I wrote myself into this time went like this:  “In her essay “‘Thinking Serially,’” Scalapino “demonstrates / comments” how love in the modern world is written in Robert Creeley’s poetry—neither as denial nor transcendence of social convention, but in its active “apprehension,” which is “change” (P, 50).  “For Love is a serial work because it is inherently conflict that starts again and again.  Delineation of the conflict is the form of the poem . . . The only description is the weight of the measure itself, the tracking that is the poem” (P, 45).   In that Creeley uses “the convention of Elizabethan love poems or the quality of medieval courtly tradition” in his own “present time,” these two [past convention and present time] continually separate” (P, 44).  “The terms that courtly love convention posits are that one’s being is possible only within those courtly terms: in impossible union.  For Creeley, one can never equal one” (P, 46).

Indeed, the limitations of my critique became evident to me precisely through the ways that Creeley’s voice begins coming through Scalapino’s writing, and her admonishment in a Williams-Creeley formulation that “the only description is the weight of the measure itself, the tracking that is the poem.” [12]   Scalapino’s performative writing seemed far more efficacious than any stabilized critique I might leverage against it, far more capable of dislocating courtly love conventions than my own polemically based response. As Scalapino herself notes:  “polemics-based writing merely imposes point of view and suppresses demonstration” (P, 21).  “Assessing relations of power between people—such as that say based in gender—merely becomes the articulation of those relations, as oneself having power” (P, 25).  Indeed “perspective is no ordering . . . ‘Position is where you put it / where it is.’” (P, 4 ).

In ventriloquizing Creeley’s plaintive voice, Scalapino shows just how far Creeley is from courtly love traditions.   Indeed, by drawing out the most universal terms in Creeley’s poetry, Scalapino paradoxically demonstrates the singularity of his desire as it conflicts with the universalizing terms that define it.  Creeley’s writing [as is Scalapino’s] “is in continual conflict between an overriding conception, and the process that is being within the series and not seeing what’s ahead” (P, 47).  Indeed, for Scalapino, relations between people are never hierarchical except when interpreted by convention into social context.  And love as an “‘inner’ configuration that’s unknown” can neither be affirmed, nor denied (P, 47):

      But what
    was I after, you
    were surely open to me.
    Out the far window
    there was such intensity

    of yellow light.  But love,
    love I so wanted I
    got, didn’t I, and then
    fell senseless, with relief. [13]

Yet, despite the ways that Scalapino’s “demonstration / commentary” opens up so much of Creeley for me and of love itself, my objection to her elision of gender distinctions remained.  Women poets could not produce what Creeley writes precisely because of how courtly love conventions enable his singular male voice at the behest of female love objects, albeit however much its plaintive quality shows its breakage from these very conventions.  Indeed, however Creeley’s voice ventriloquized by Scalapino, or Scalapino’s voice ventriloquized by Creeley “moved me” for the very ways they / it seemed ripped apart by the very conventions that bound them / it, I could not forget how these conventions authorized his poetry.  No matter how much Scalapino’s Creeley undoes these conventions, I found in this very undoing, the defining dynamics of the conventions themselves—a shadowy substructure, very much in place. [14]   

When Scalapino does turn to address the gender bifurcations within Creeley’s love poems, she suggests the split exists most vitally within Creeley himself.  Analyzing Creeley’s “The Dream,” she comments that the speaker “is double split internally as being both the lady and himself” (P, 44):

In the dream
I see
two faces turned,

one of which
I assume mine, one
of which I assume

If all women are
mothers, what
are men

in dreams, mine
or theirs,

empty of
all but themselves.
They are so

lonely, unknown
there, I run
for whatever

is not
them, turning
into that consequence

makes me
my mother hating
myself.                              (P, 45; CP, 298)    

Although ostensibly Creeley is exploring a division within himself, the very existence of this articulation is made possible through social types that have their life elsewhere.  Creeley’s dilemma, to whom or where to turn, gains drama as this singular speaker confronts a plurality of female others, collectively defined: “If all women are mothers.”  The ethereal precision of this voice is enhanced in relation to a very substantial world (of mothers) elsewhere.  Noting the women’s palpable emptiness, loneliness, the speaker runs “for whatever / Is not / them,”—doubling an absence felt so vividly that it can be expressed only through the most abject of figures, “my mother hating / myself.”  Creeley’s poem is a marvel of the very gender dichotomies he would undo, haunting him most assuredly at his moment of greatest self-abnegation—yet, as Kristeva notes about the abject, the moment of greatest self-realization, as the non-being of the self is fully etched. [15]

As if propelled by her own lapses in her otherwise replete “demonstration / commentary,” near the conclusion of “‘Thinking Serially’ in For Love, Words, and Pieces, Scalapino makes an uncharacteristic baldly polemical statement about eros, as if erotic agency  (her own?) was in need of defense:

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 area for apprehension, or change (P, 50).

In the very conclusion of her essay, Scalapino returns to address “The Dream,” affirming how “it is an enactment continually of split that is its gesture only.  It’s just that” (P, 51).


Jacqueline Rose in Sexuality and the Field of Vision, like Scalapino, asserts the necessity of postulating an eros apart from social determinations, however much they may define it. [16]    For Rose, sexuality has both the power to bind subjects to oppressive social forms, as it has the power to break with them.  Beginning with a desire for a different desire, Rose’s work is transformative because of the ways she unsettles existing theories of gender and sexuality through the presumption of the difference of her own desire to any theoretical inquiry.  Like Scalapino, Rose attends to the ways that desire is implicated in existing social formations and conceives that change will come about from interacting with these formations, not in their simple repudiation.  

In Sexuality and the Field of Vision, Rose emphasizes the importance of a feminist “looking” that has at times all but abandoned the visual in its consternation over the “male gaze.”   Reading Freud and Lacan not for how they reinforce existing sexual scripts but for how they unsettle sexuality, she emphasizes the place of visuality in this unsettling. Noting how Freud often investigates the question of sexuality through visual scenarios, she comments how Freud “would take as his models little scenarios, or the staging of events, which demonstrated the complexity of an essentially visual space, moments in which perception founders . . . or in which pleasure in looking tips over into the register of excess” (S, 227). Rose stresses how in Freud  “the relations between viewer and scene is always one of fracture, partial identification, pleasure and distrust” (S, 227).  In analyzing Lacan’s response to courtly love traditions, she stresses not the power of the masculine subject to idealize his beloved, but the very instability of his gaze.    For Lacan, whose male subject enters the symbolic realm through his identification with the father and his repudiation of the mother synonymous with his own fear of castration, his idealizing of women in courtly love traditions is no more than a “symptom” of his fear of castration, of male lack (S, 81).  Indeed, for the lover to hold a perfect, flawless image of his beloved in his gaze is steady work at best. 

In the concluding essay of the volume, “Sexuality in the Field of Vision,” Rose focuses on how a disturbance in the visual field is a disturbance of sexuality.   Beginning the essay with an account of Freud’s reaction to a sexually disturbing painting by Da Vinci, Rose emphasizes how it is through Freud’s response to this seemingly aberrant visual presentation that his patriarchal, masculinist stance is most undone.  So disturbed is Freud by Da Vinci’s drawing of an anatomical section of the sexual act that includes a man’s head that looks like a woman and a woman’s breast that is “unbeautiful” that he accuses the master Da Vinci of being unable to draw (S, 225).  From this example, Rose argues that it is the flawless image that upholds existing sexual orders, whereas it is the disturbing image that undoes them.  She notes, “there can be no work on the image, no challenge to its powers of illusion and address, which does not simultaneously challenge the fact of sexual difference” (S, 226).   Rose calls on feminist artists to intervene in the visual imaginary in order to destabilize the field of desire.  Through their unsettling of visual representation, female artists can allow “us a form of resistance which can be articulated on this side of  (rather than beyond) the world against which it protests” (S, 233).


Throughout Scalapino’s writing, a luxuriant fanciful visual imaginary exists alongside a highly reflexive discursive analysis, often the two intermixing with each other.  For Scalapino, while she will entertain the category of the “actually seen,” visuality in writing exists as a complex set of relations, inseparable from her mind’s activity and writing itself.   If there is an overriding commitment in her work, it is to an increasingly complexly defined writing of the “real” or “present,” each implicated in the other.   Indeed, the only “real” is the writing of a present in which her mind’s activity determines this “real” through active “apprehension” of whatever is most pressing in her scope of attention. [17]   As Scalapino writes of her character Defoe, “She has to have new work each time she works so as not to know what she’s doing” (F, 5).  While for Scalapino, the most comprehensive, unifying term to evoke her purposes in writing may be “apprehension,” she repeatedly investigates relations between seer / visible, inside / outside, myself / another—not only as phenomenologically differential experiences, but also as conceptual schema to be transgressed.  Showing little interest in attending to the ideologically impaled distinctions of subject-object—since consciousness or subjectivity is the locus and not the focus of her investigation—Scalapino rather investigates the relationship between herself as a discrete phenomenological entity and her experience of an expansive phenomenological real, importantly mediated by social convention and language.

What emerges in Scalapino is at times incredibly complex “mind stuff,” in which all matters of orientation break into her investigation—cross-overs between all possible felt, observed, thought, experienced, phenomenal real, intellection, pre-existing genre, and dreamscape. [18]   It is not that the past is irrelevant to her writing, but that it only exists reconfigured in the present, otherwise it is an imposition on reality, not itself “real.”  For Scalapino, “The translation of a were into an are can only be convention.”  Indeed, while writing can be “Remembering everything, all layers at the same time,” it is importantly born of the present—its exigencies, desires, and whimsies.   Throughout her writing, Scalapino has engaged in intense acts of analysis as well as in acts devoid of analysis.  As she comments, “Analysis takes ‘the perceiver’ into the most disturbing thing about the present . . . as does being without analysis, being too close.”  Her writing “constitute[s] at once ‘critical analysis’ and ‘practice of demonstration of no procedure’” (P, 31).

Important to Scalapino’s writing of the real / present is the way the writing gives momentum to itself, in what Scalapino has called a “seriality” and an “unfolding,” or what Bruce Campbell presumably borrowing from Jacques Derrida has provocatively called an “invagination”: “the outer limit folded back into the interior.” [19]    Scalapino has described the complex set of issues involved when “seeing” is turned into writing:  “‘Seeing’ is not separate from being action and these are only the process of the text / one’s mind’s phenomena” (P, 8).  Refusing to separate visualizing from the mind’s activity and action more generally, she also ascribes her writing to the dynamic serial processing instigated by her own textual production.  In addition to what might be described as a kind of serialism, many of Scalapino’s books also ascribe to a proceduralism in which at the outset she will set out the terms of her investigation.  In her recent book Sight, a collaborative project with Lyn Hejinian, she notes, “We agreed that the form of our collaboration was to be in doubles, pairs (such as two sentences, two lines or paragraphs, or series of these, etc); and that the subject, being sight, should involve things actually seen.” [20]   Rather than a congealing, a reestablishment of prior orders, writing should be “an experiment of reality,” an active exchange between seer / visible, inside / outside, myself / another (P, 8).


In the 1970’s and early 1980’s, Robert Hass, Adrienne Rich, and Leslie Scalapino in their respective works “Against Botticelli,” “Origins and History of Consciousness,” and “hmmmm” explore erotic relationships through sightings of large amphibious animals. [21]   Writing at a time in which the so-called sexual revolution was radically challenging heterosexual and monogamous relations, each poet engages seal-like bodies, as if only through these animals will the specific sexual challenges of their time be adequately registered—its animalistic refusals of a sublimated nether world. [22]   Yet, although in Hass’s and Rich’s work, there is a sense of an annunciation of some new order, both Hass and Rich in very significant ways replicate erotic love dynamics made prominent in courtly love poetry.  Only Scalapino significantly revises these love scenarios.  While Hass and Rich establish their erotic meditations through singular lover-beloved, subject-object relations, Scalapino casts her love writing over a spate of entities, engaging diverse animal and plant figures, including dogs, seals, baboons, anemone, and fish.

In Robert Hass’s “Against Botticelli,” he meditates on sexual pleasure within and in conflict with marital fidelity.  Indeed, while there are pleasures in a “steadfast” existence, it seems to spell its own death: “In the life we lead together every paradise is lost” (Pr, 10). Yet, within this controlled set of relations, within “the formal hovering of pleasure,” sexual relations, when engaged, are intense, if brutal (Pr, 10).  Indeed, their realness and brutality make the representation of these lovers problematical. They “are not in any painting,” not even Botticelli’s painting of Venus, despite his “secret / That she is an otter, that Botticelli saw her so.” (Pr, 10).  Sex in marriage is “doing it,” violently, purely:

If we do it at all, we will be like the old Russians.
We’ll walk down through the scrub oak to the sea
and where the seals lie preening on the beach
we will look at each other steadily
and butcher them and skin them.  (Pr, 11)

By comparison, sex outside of marriage is a cool burn that “like the sacking of Troy/. . .  survives in imagination,” i.e. representation (Pr, 11).  Consummation returns the poetic speaker to familiar icons, not entirely satisfying:

      as if the grace in Botticelli’s Primavera,
    the one with sad eyes who represents pleasure,
    had a canvas to herself, entirely to herself.  (Pr, 12)

While Hass locates the strongest sexual intensity in marital sex, and, by comparison, a kind of tepid pleasure in marital infidelity, overturning courtly love conventions in which erotic love is the domain of adultery, like many courtly tales of intense passion, his eros seems a kind of love onto death. [23]    And as in many love poems, the female others are largely objects for his speaker’s desiring agency.  When female subjectivity is engaged, it confirms the incommunicableness of her object status while the man seems on the verge of speech:

The woman thinks what she is feeling is like the dark
and utterly complete.  The man is past sadness,
though his eyes are wet.  (Pr, 12)

Rich’s love poetry addressed to a female beloved largely replicates the troubled dynamics of Hass’s poem, her female speaker’s poetic speech dependent on an objectified female other.  But while Hass’s  poem pursues a kind of love onto death, Rich’s poem, like many women’s love poems, aims to surpass a physical eros in its desire for transcendent states. [24]   Engaging as does Hass, distinctions between pure and impure, seemly and unseemly, Rich initially seeks out a female beloved, purified like herself of “the wardens of the mind” through assertion of her warm animal body:

          I have dreamed of going to bed
    as walking into clean water ringed by a snowy wood. . . .
      I sink and float
    like a warm amphibious animal
    that has broken the net, has run
    through fields of snow leaving no print;

    the water washes off the scent —
    You are clear now
    of the hunter, the trapper
    the wardens of the mind —
    yet the warm animal dreams on
    of another animal
    swimming under the snow-flecked surface of the pool,
    and wakes, and sleeps again. (D 7-8)

Yet, although the speaker’s physical encounter with this other is recalled as “a darkness / which I remember as drenched in light,” the poem concludes by electing a transcendent consciousness which will free the dumb beast from herself:

But I can’t call it life until we start to move
beyond this secret circle of fire
where our bodies are giant shadows flung on a wall
where the night becomes our inner darkness, and sleeps
like a dumb beast, head on her paws, in the corner. (D, 9)

While in this case female subjectivity and consciousness are affirmed, they are affirmed in opposition to an “animal” sexual body.

In Scalapino’s “hmmmm,” although a first-person speaker establishes the predominate point of view, the speaker writes her love poetry as a series of encounters, as frequently acted upon as acting.  Moreover, the short poems are as likely to be focused on other entities as they are on the speaker.   And if Rich’s and Hass’s speakers deliver prophetic utterances through conjuring a kind of hyper real-ideal, Scalapino’s insouciant speaker plays with a kind of pretend existence. [25]   In “hmmmm,” the relationship between entities is not formed through asserted passion but rather through staged (often visual) encounters that stimulate erotic desire.  Basic identity formations and personality characteristics—human and animal, masculine and feminine, active and passive—are often defined and exchanged according to changing situations and are not themselves characteristics fixed to any one entity. 

Throughout “hmmmm,” diverse male and female figures engage in stereotypically degrading scenarios, as if mere sexual curios. Scalapino’s lack of interest in distinguishing the pure from the impure, the seemly from the unseemly, radically alters the sexuality portrayed.  Indeed, “hmmmm” might be seen as a set of spiritual exercises, as if in response to H.D.’s contention that those who cannot be “instructed” by “pornography” are not ready for the first stage of vision: [26]

Isn’t   it   interesting     how  a   woman   like    me

pursues   in    man   after    man

the same face or even the same foot or hand.  Like the man who loved a woman for her sheared hair.  Sure.  Loved her, he said,   because she was like a hyena.  Or like a mongrel or like a short-haired dog, i.e. When in bed, the man said, while calling her pet names by whistling, he liked to nip her with his lips.  And once, during intercourse, when he told her what he would like most from her,   the man said facetiously: I want you to say the word yip, as in the yelp of a young dog. (C, 6)

Rather than depicting her relationship to a beloved other, the speaker describes how her sexual behavior is “like” a man’s.  Indeed, this double focus between the speaker’s and the man’s sexuality creates a sense of this speaker as just one more entity among other entities—and of sex itself as a fantasy exchange.

Indeed, while the described behavior may suggest sexual compulsivity and obsession, its playful representation manifests the erotic play in the very compulsion to repeat, with a difference.  And if men are likely to eroticize their beloveds through comparison to animals, so are females

How can I help myself, as one woman said to me about wanting to have intercourse with strange men, from thinking of a man (someone whom I don’t know) as being like a seal.  I mean I see a man (in a crowd such as a theatre) as having the body of a seal in the way a man would, say, be in bed with someone, kissing and barking, which is the way a seal will bark and leap on his partly-fused hind limbs. Yes.  Am I not bound, I guess, (I say to myself) to regard him tenderly, to concentrate on the man’s trunk instead of his face, which in this case, is so impressive.  Seriously, I am fascinated by the way a seal moves. (C, 11)

The speaker’s waywardness is flaunted by her desire to associate her male lover’s body with the body of a seal, often suggestive of female sexuality as in Hass’s and Rich’s poems, and in her insistence that tenderness is conjured through his “trunk,” not his face.  In her fascination with “the way a seal moves,” the speaker draws attention to the man’s capacity to attract her as well as her own growing attraction to him, her movement.  Indeed, in “hmmmm,” the focus of these multiple short poems is often on the attraction between persons, rather than as in Hass’s and Rich’s poems, on meaningful consummation, or the lack thereof.


In The Return of Painting, Scalapino moves away from the relative freedom of her insouciant speaker in “hmmmm” to take up the burden of representativeness in an information age in which the grid of delimiting demographic determinations significantly defines existence.  The exploratory first person of “hmmmm” becomes the “young woman who was not so young” third person protagonist of The Return of Painting, in which all subjectivity, all seeing, is laid out to be purveyed as evidence.  Whereas in “hmmmm” the first person poetic speaker appears as just one more entity in a spate of entities, in The Return of Painting the third person protagonist recurs amidst a host of others, no more nor less than a simulacra of the historically “real” Scalapino. [27]

Throughout The Return of Painting, a sense of the negated plenitude of an illusionistic novel predominates.  Negation would seem to be at once the mode of consciousness dictated by this urban grid as well as Scalapino’s elected mode of presentation. (Negation is at once under investigation and also the mode of presentation.)  Indeed, this double negation produces an affirmative depiction—an emptied, but palpable urban scene.  The Return of Painting begins

People going to small shops, on a street one over that runs parallel, so that it is not facing them.  There is clement weather which is not varying in this place though the day and night are not the same.  (T, 5).

Consciousness itself is revealed to be made up of the negative judgments that the rationalized, disciplined spaces of contemporary life require—quick judgments on what something “is” or “is not”—if one is to navigate, orient oneself in the repetitive, undistinguishable spaces of  contemporary urban existence.  Indeed, so necessary is this capability for quick orientation, this on-off switch of what something is, isn’t that to depict contemporary existence apart from the consciousness it triggers is to fail to address contemporaneity.  Moreover, by making these relations through their preponderance in the text highly palpable, Scalapino creates a second order negation, an artful presentation, that creates its own perverse plenitude:

Jobs are nothing, days, open, walking down the street though she was in misery at that time from something else.  From having been with a man, which now with that person gone was extreme pain.  From no money, she tried to sleep.  In the darkness, she remembered the one thing there was to eat there, an orange.  In the soft darkness alone in bed, coming back to it with it, peeling the orange its odor scent in the dark—eating it, eating—and then physically light day without the orange’s scent.  She was very thin—the orange was the same as her person.  Regardless of no job. (T, 10)

In this passage of condensed time emphasizing as throughout the text the repetitive, quotidian aspects of all occurrences, experience is shown to be constituted significantly through non-events:  “Jobs are nothing,” “person gone,” “no money,”  “the only thing there was” [i.e. nothing else], “without the orange’s scent,”  “no job.”  But importantly, in addition to definition through emotionally and conceptually oscillating negativity, the entire passage through its condensed presentation bespeaks a second order negation.  As Scalapino remarks about another piece of writing, “I intended this work to be the repetition of historically real events, the writing which punches a hole in reality (as if to void them, but actively)”  ( H, 21).

Indeed, Scalapino’s prose-experiment would seem to be a re-imagined Dos Passos’ U.S.A, both works committed to disclosing the social grid as highly determinant of existence.  Yet Scalapino through negation shows the made-up quality of the grid, how it is mere representation, a trick of mirrors.  In Scalapino, while social formations significantly determine experience, there is also through the mobility of human consciousness or perception itself, a limited freedom.  And if sexuality, or eros, is defined through this social grid, it also partakes of a limited freedom—a not entirely predictable node of human encounter and activity.

In The Return of Painting, Scalapino shows how eros is defined by social determinations—by gender, race, class, and age hierarchies, among others—without reinscribing them.  Rather she forces attention on social configurations, conventions, thereby beginning to unbind sexual experience, erotic desire, from existing socialization.  The resulting erotics, as in the case of “hmmmm,” are at once lightened and intensified, defamiliarized and familiarized, through this clarified seeing. 

In one episode, composed of several sexual encounters, a crowd of acquaintances who routinely snubs the protagonist as well as others becomes an important defining context for erotic experience.  Indeed, while in most representations, erotic encounters are depicted as occurring in some separate realm of intensity apart from demographic relations, in The Return of Painting a snubbing crowd of purveyors by their very attention to the protagonist would seem in very significant ways to constitute eros itself:

          Dining or something, the couples though there more men, are rudely insolent to the young woman who is foreign to them—visiting—a woman who is foreign to her snubs her in the table conversation and with affected and dominated manner.
          The couple are seen then—by these people—without any clothes, lying on each other.  The pink or rosish tip of the man’s stem—the pink long slender stem pointed out—is not in the young woman. 
          The young man’s stem is pointed out—he has an erection though it is not in her yet with him sitting up bending toward her, him innocently unexpectedly, though having no interest in them.  The flower opens.  Though it is not them.  . . .


          She meets them out—uninvited—unavoidably, with others, and they will not speak to her.  Of the trussed-up in the sex clothes insolent class-ridden people.  Which is really so.
          The man who is not like them, with the long stem pinkish unclothed in front of him—and not in her yet.  Then putting it in to her.
          On a time when she comes from it.  These people are out, they always snub the others who are visitors.  For those who aren’t, in that manner that is class-ridden.
          Mature large bull-man rutting but who is not at all one of these.  Those who are foreign having the attitude of great restraint and repression the men and women the man’s pinkish tip stem unclothed and him making sounds—who’s not like them—out.  People are in public, on the street.  (T, 21-22) 

In that the couple “are seen then—by these people,” Scalapino forces attention on how unreclusive sex is—how it is in fact inseparable from this crowd’s sense of ownership of a larger scene.  Moreover, in defining male lovers through broad social definitions—“the young man” and “Mature large bull-man”—she also demonstrates how this seemingly most intimate of acts is interpenetrated with the crudest social designations.  Indeed, the “Mature large bull-man,” who seems to be a member of this crowd but “who is not like them,” may be differentiated from this crowd mainly through his desire to have sex with the protagonist, i.e. he too snubs people but doesn’t snub the protagonist because of his desire to have sex with her.  Scalapino’s flattened, largely visual presentation of male sexuality puts the phallic function under erasure, separating out symbolic and physical dimensions, thereby opening up a space for a different set of erotic possibilities. Indeed, while the social scenarios of The Return of Painting reverberate with hierarchies, men and women, young and old, foreigner and non-foreigners, insiders and outsiders, well-off and not so well off, sexual encounters seem a kind of energetic squiggle, a partially liberated telos within this socially overwrought, highly determined set of social interactions. 

Scalapino’s concluding, “People are in public, on the street,” forces attention on how the very public are private acts.  Indeed, the fraught relations initiated by this crowd of people of inclusion and exclusion based on public, social determinations make the privacy of sex, its protected enclosure, nearly irrelevant.  Throughout the passage, the repeated use of the word “out” draws attention to the different modalities of what it might mean to be “out”—both socially, in public as well as phenomenologically, external.   Indeed, by conflating these senses of “out,” Scalapino draws attention to the act of externalization—including the act of externalization performed by The Return of Painting itself.


If The Return of Painting is bent on studying the grid of social relations, and their negations, laying these out as evidence, Orion engages sensationalized comic book plots of highly visceral desire and violence, seeing one frame at a time.  Indeed, the change between The Return of Painting and Orion, from the relatively pedestrian sentences of The Return of Painting to the pulsating, strobe-like intensity of Orion, is difficult to account for.  Did Leslie Scalapino fall in love with an Orion, finding the brother she could get passionate about?  Or is Orion the product of a communitarian ecstasy, as suggested by the multiple persons to whom it is dedicated? [28]   Or might these changes be merely the mediating influences of the comic book itself, its rank sexuality and violence brought to white heat through Scalapino’s now popularized (authorized, masculinized?) pen:

The light waves coming down.
This is simply trash. (T, 177)

If in The Return of Painting an overly earnest Scalapino puts together the grid of her experience, in Orion the alienation effect contemplated by Walter Benjamin in Charles Baudelaire:  A Poet in the Age of High Capitalism, a work frequently recalled in Orion, is explored.  The mobile nature of perceptual processes as altered by diverse media, including the freeze frame of the comic book and its colorfast plots, is investigated.  Indeed, the comic book seems to provide Scalapino a highly stimulating means for exercising, exorcising the demons of contemporary existence.  Investigating Benjamin’s / Baudelaire’s discovery that one might be disconnected, alienated from experience, from the crowd, Scalapino studies this alienation effect through one of its delivery systems, the comic book:

There not being historical experience—is the comic book ( T, 156)


to be emancipated from experience, in the comic book—to be it as such.
    to have no other self
    than in the comic book. (T, 155)

If history as a transcendent narrative is one of capitalism’s cap-sized vessels, then how better to recover its complexity than through immersion in its commodities.  For if, indeed, alienation typically produces emotional ennui, in creating an awareness apart from or “outside” of conventional experience, it enables redaction.

In The Return of Painting, an omniscient consciousness construes, and discloses, a contemporary social grid; in Orion the “convention” of the comic book mediates between consciousness and reality.  Indeed, “convention” flushes out  /  fleshes out Orion’s quandary between private psyche and public existence:  “the comic book is the self”  (T, 64).  “Each line or paragraph is a frame, so that each action occurs in the moment.” (H, 22).   While newspapers impoverish, creating the sense through their reportage, their array of evidence, of “not being in experience,” they also in “isolating events create the ‘jewel’” (T, 162, 187).   Indeed, the technologies of modern existence while themselves productive of alienation also create in fact their opposite:  a web of scintillating, eroticized relations too energized to simply connect, or not connect.   In Orion, Scalapino opens up her inquiry to the simulacral aspect of meaning production while also establishing its limits: “we have the sense that experience is convention.  I don’t” (T, 178).  Unlike Baudrillard, who would celebrate this mobile field, Scalapino notes the contradictions within a seemingly self-generating simulacra.  Refusing the complete erasure of the experiencing subject in her “I don’t,” Scalapino casts attention on how this field of relations produces the protesting, individualistic subject, both the vehicle of and the limit of its own production. 

Orion as a “seeing on the retina” expands the compass of The Return of Painting to include a “seeing” in which visuality and concept interact more dynamically (T, 188).  Indeed, while in The Return of Painting, the narrative perspective is often determined by what can and cannot be actually seen, in Orion a multi-dimensionality is effected.  In The Return of Painting, the view of the city is singular, opaque: “People going to small shops, on a street one over that runs parallel, so that it is not facing them” (T, 5).  In Orion, the vantage is more various, light-filled, a seeing from inside out:  “It was a city which had a high glass-domed ceiling, tiers, hundreds of compartments with only a few goods, interior bridges” (T, 152).  In The Return of Painting, the day is “temperate,” “clement,” but in Orion, it “comes apart”  (T, 5, 12, 199).  

In The Return of Painting, erotic scenes are discrete, nodular, focusing often on masculine anatomy; in Orion, they spread across pages, linking death and sexuality, wounds and orgasms.  Chapter Three begins with a prolonged erotic scene abruptly, announcing, “There is no need for this to meet.”  In this erotic depiction, both connection and disconnection, merger and separation become pronounced.  The combined several scenes would seem to effect a breathing and swelling, an expanding and contracting: 

There is no need for this to meet.

The man flat on her—flat and swimming around with his stem in.
     her flat swimming—on the stem
     flat. and coming—after. as they’re both flat and then come.

     huge waves streamers go in light.
     They’re driving on the mountain road, are by the mass of water.
     The only whale rolling its thick back heaving.
     the sole creature rolls churns
     there’s another one.  ahead in the sea.
     There is no relation between there not being interiority
     and there not being a relation between the adult and the corpse.
     there is not a relation between the adult and the corpse
     and seeing on the retina.
     Her gliding the wounded muscular man heavily in the waves,
     he lay sack strewn on the sand for awhile unable to move.
     She moved nervously around him as they’re out visible on the sand.
     standing.  She’s a small person.  The man is heavy, with the shot wound in
     him and being dragged seeking to assist her in pulling him.
     an effluence from him   (T, 190).

The writing calls up prior scenes in the text, connecting and disconnecting their diverse elements through an undulating corpulence.  The scene of coitus flattened even more than in The Return of Painting, both through its sparer diction and disruptive periods, more nearly approximates a shared conjunction.  While the passage in one moment professes a complete lack of connection “between the adult and the corpse,” perhaps alluding to the severance effected by death itself, it also foists attention on the act of perception / cognition, as mediated by social formation:  “There is no relation between there not being interiority and there not being a relation between the adult and the corpse.”  Through multiple uses of the negative, Scalapino opens onto an aporia of meanings.  Indeed bourgeois “interiority” may have nothing to do with anything or it may in fact spell the conditions of death itself.  Similarly “seeing on the retina,” at once produced by the processes of perception / cognition initiated by the comic book as well as perhaps other modern media, may also exist entirely apart from the processes that instigated it, having nothing or everything to do with whatever else.  The entire passage through its various line lengths, and sometimes flattened, sometimes multi-dimensioned perspectives, kinesthetically effects a  pulsating set of relations.  The “thick back heaving” joins the mating couple, the wounded man, the whale, and the swelling ocean as part of a living mass. Depending on whether one reads the “go” in “huge wave streamers go in light” as an act of arrival or diminishment,  the phrase conjures a festivity, a cosmic jouissance, simultaneously intoning a funeral dirge. “An effluence from him” unites the scenes of coitus and wounding, seeming to refer to any bright stream, whether of blood or semen. 

Drawing on the comic book’s popular plots, Scalapino would seem to be engaging a Western mythos of subject constitution and sexual struggle, brought forth in Freudian and Lacanian theory importantly through the topoi of castration.  Indeed, the excess of desire and violence of the comic book produces in Scalapino’s writing a precipitate of wounds and jewels.  It is the jewel (language) that emanates when the wound is not stemmed.  (In Lacanian analysis, the male subject’s fear of castration that produces the identification with the father and yields entrance to the symbolic order.)  The protagonist within and apart from these cultural processes / languages—strobing between them—encounters the clear light of day:

    There is no cauterized. The jewel.   (T, 163)


    She feels beaten.  In the clear, light day.
    Feeling incredibly tired—sleeping in her apartment.  She’s in the sleep deeply.  The next day it’s clear and light.
    Cauterized, where there’s something empty and clear after that.  She begins to weep. . . .
      So she stood and wept.  the jewel.  (T, 168)

The female protagonist, at once experiencing inclusion within and exclusion from the languages that produce desire, experiences both relief and sorrow.  The jewel pronounced through this plot leaves her feeling “empty and clear,” contained and abandoned, castrated but without the organ by which castration is made “real.”


In several of Scalapino’s most recent works, she is drawn to investigate such emotional phenomena as friendship, compassion, and love that emerge through accumulated time, and critically as memory.  Indeed, her earlier focus on eros is extended into the potentially more problematical subject of love.  In her introduction to The Front Matter, Dead Souls, she writes “A dialogue about love is utterly crucial to the remaking of the modern world in writing.” (F, 1) Relatively early on in this text, she comments about her earlier poem Way:  “I wanted compassion objectively to be in the moving shape  . . . “ (F, 21).  Indeed, as something previously existing to be named, as a backward formation, emotional phenomena would seem to present Scalapino’s writing little difficulty.  However, as something existing or about to exist, emotional phenomena are far more troubling since to name them would assume some generalizable fixing of the present in relationship to the past, which would necessitate labeling experience through a predetermined concept that Scalapino everywhere is loathe to do.  Scalapino’s commitment to the writing of the present / real would seem to foreclose any rendering of an accumulation through time, electing rather moments thick with time.   

Indeed the beginning of The Front Matter, Dead Souls, committed to a dialogue about love, would seem particularly loveless, void as it is of Scalapino’s usual exchanges between seer / visible, inside/ outside, and myself / another.  At the outset, Scalapino announces her “serial novel’s” rather singular purpose: “The writing is scrutiny . . . of image-making to produce extreme and vivid images in order for them to be real” (F, 2).   By focusing her efforts on this previously determined objective, Scalapino produces fairly stable subject /object distinctions, albeit producing at times a set of fantastically imaginative and surrealistically grotesque images.   Indeed, the female protagonist, Dead Souls, and the male figure, the sumo wrestler, become defined in highly physical, palpable ways (as opposed to the often functional descriptions in Trilogy).  The sumo wrestler, is characterized frequently through bound muscle body parts:  “vast haunches and belly squatting over her” and  “vast hard gelatin frame” (F, 6,7).  Dead Souls is often described through her darkened mouth:  “the blackened teeth around which her mouth smiles slightly” (F, 7).   Engaging in coitus, their love-making is not seen from an omnisciently defined “outside” as in Trilogy but through Dead Soul’s point of view. 

   The head floating over her, he puts the long part in.
   The vast haunches and belly squatting bent over her,
puts the long extended part gently up in her.
   His head swims over her (F, 6)

Scalapino, in fact, comments in her narrative directly on its limitations: “Events are translated back into one’s syntax as convention to be seen there only” (F, 48). “Because the events are not actual and occur.  It’s the condition of almost not occurring” (F, 33).   The female figure Defoe, a product of this writing, emerges as a confessional self, addicted to writing:  “I’ve become addicted to writing.  I simply can’t stop, since for me it’s present time and the addiction itself is sense of life” (F, 33).

Yet, as this writing continues, accumulating serially, the very images fold over on themselves, producing their own internal / external exchange.   Scalapino comments, “That actually is one’s inner self by acting upon its projection” (F, 5).   Progressively internalizing the images it produces, the writing through its self-reflexive seriality produces its own “internal” point of view.   Or in Campbell’s words, the text becomes “invaginated”:  “the outer limit folded back into the interior.”   Working through the imagery of a highly commercial, postmodern culture, the “inner eye or soul of Bechtel” is born, paradoxically producing loveliness:   “There in the series they’re recycled . . . exist only by being repeated, take on increasingly more beautiful shapes” (F, 86).  Writing Dead Souls during an election year and taking on diverse images of the nation, Scalapino in assuming this simulacral production creates its motive for metaphor.  As Creeley comments about this text, “Leslie Scalapino manages to make a ‘virtual reality’ in which reality itself becomes the determinant.” [29]

One of the text’s important productions is its transformation of the muscle bound sumo wrestler as well as other masculine figures into butterflies, as if their previous palpability was but a cocoon or chrysalis for the emergence of their transformed sex: [30]

     The bodies of the men in the night were backs and buttockswith the heels seen pinned as if they were black butterflies(on it.)
     Moving, yet almost still flapping, in the black. (F, p.75)


     The black butterflies, which are only night can’t be in the blazing blue.
     A man vomits the blazing blue when he’s black butterfly still flapping in it.
     The street is a glazed place. (F, p.76)

The imagery of a struggling masculinity enfolded in wings is an invaginated female figure, an interpenetrated masculinity, “vomit[ing] the blazing blue.” In bringing writing “to a point where vision occurs, to actually see there physically,” Scalapino in producing “the inner eye or soul of Bechtel,” creates out of this absent center a generative complexity, a transmogrifying imaginary. (F, 55, 86)  Within this changed imaginary, “the street is a glazed place,” of connectivity, of beauty.

Dead Souls concludes with an incredibly mixed, syncretic finale, a “seeing on the retina” in which the “flapping masculinity” becomes “the flaps of the iris” of a blind woman’s harbored seeing / sexuality.  Taking on images / discourses from the nation at large, including its namesake, Amerigo Vespucci, the concluding passage simultaneously engages cries and calmness, eros and death:

     The crowd in the dusk crying has only empty retinas.
     In the blazing blue they cry for infants.

     There’s an inflammation, an iris, between them

     Amerigo Vespucci couples a deer.  Collaboration is calm. 
     The flickering tongue of the blind woman on the visible Red Sea, the water’s red, is in the visual reality—for her.
     The flaps of the iris are in her within blind flicking her tongue outside.
     Some are naked as in being ferried on Lethe and an iris is between them here and there now in the water.  (F, 95).

The earlier “crying for infants to be born” which may well be meant to conjure an abortion demonstration is here the more soulful “they cry for infants,” as if the former political sloganeering bore the origin of a more primal emptiness from which the problematic politics emerges.  The “Red Sea” and “the water’s red” utilize diverse registers, causing the reader to vacillate between resonant symbolics and flat literality, between Biblical histories and toilet bowl abortions. “Amerigo Vespucci couples a deer” conjures a deer’s delicate parted face, its “calm” made of two parts in “collaboration.”  Yet simultaneously the “iris” and “a flickering tongue” suggest an inflamed erotic seeing.   That this inflamed seeing is associated with a blind woman, perhaps Lady Liberty herself blind to social stratification, produces a striated female eros, a “flicking,” “flickering” “tongue” as central to the national discourse.


If in Dead Souls, Scalapino inquires into image-making through a constituted “inner” acting upon its external projections, in As:  All Occurrence in Structures, Unseen—(Deer Night) Scalapino turns her attention to diverse cultures, insisting on a dynamic interaction between inner and outer:  “That an outside culture as seen interiorily by one be brought to bear on one’s own culture” (P, 29).  As an investigation into coloniality and postcoloniality, As was written while Scalapino was travelling in Burma and Thailand and is a response to Shakespeare’s The Tempest and King Lear—“by being a total rewriting—that is without using the plots, characters or language of Shakespeare.”  Written both to be apprehended as a silent reading as well as performed as a play, Scalapino wishes this writing to be both inside and outside, “at once apprehension and overt . . . illusion” (P, 29).  Aiming to establish “occurrence,” As is an active rejection of all subject-object hierarchies, including an anesthetized respect for the “other” or the arrogant presumption that one is “articulating for others who have been silenced” (P, 30, 31).  As as such is a highly mobile, vertiginous set of exchanges between seer / visible, outside / inside, myself / another. 

In As, Scalapino focuses on how political hierarchy is ultimately transfigured into deformed experience.  Indeed the commonplace presumption that intellect and emotion are separable is in fact a political imposition, silencing one’s / their experience, contorting one’s / their faculties.  Yet, there is no protected inner, “but only writing as action, always caught in the split between experience as defined from the ‘outside’ (as language) and ‘experiencing as occurrence’” (P, 30, 31).  As such As:  All Occurrence in Structure, Unseen—(Deer Night) is political discourse by enacting the split between “defining people’s experience to them (which is ‘being defined from the outside’) and ‘experiencing as occurrence’” (P, 31).  This very split occurs within writing itself:  “writing is the mind’s operations per se and imitation of it at the same time” (P, 4). 

In As, the rapidly changing views between inside and outside in their diverse manifestations produce a disoriented reader.   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, responding to one man’s complaint about this divided effect on his attention:

A man said, ‘I found the action / the movements distracting—so that I couldn’t listen—I just wante  to listen to the language.’  I want the viewer to exist, in this distraction.  Not to listen as such.  So as not to re-form the action of listening, itself.  (P, 103)

Indeed, to listen in the unified way this man would wish would be to “apprehend outside of formation” (P, 103).   One of the recurring incidents in the play is a medical procedure in which dye is used to trace passageways through the body.   In one instance in which this medical procedure occurs, it is conflated with a bruising fall.  A highly external seeing by “cameras” and a seeing inside one’s flesh interpenetrate one another:

     The leg flecking—of one—in pain, as the blue dye filled one’s face when I had fallen, (the image was apprehended by their cameras outside).
     As oneself seeing, inside one’s flesh, not on the eyes—one’s seeing dye inside. (P, 110).

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 As come to seem one’s fondest home and extra sensory perceptions, ghosts, occur here as readily as in Shakespeare:

The dirty canals floating garbage / shanties on stilts, people bathing—In the world, people are the main exports, sold into brothels by parents; or they migrate as labor on the roads. (P, 94).


One projected physically outside of oneself hearing what others were thinking without their speaking—without losing one’s flesh. (P,  99).

Profoundly about “(love) this one other seeming to be one,” As makes way for this very possibility / occurrence, enabling through its devolving syntax the reader’s very capacity to take in others (P, 114). 

As in Dead Souls, a luxuriant visual imagery is produced, particularly through Scalapino’s multiple depictions of a recurring female Ibex and a male butterfly / robed man.  Recalling through their fancifulness Shakespeare’s Ariel and Prospero, these figures are crossed by contrasting qualities—masculine and feminine, permeable and impermeable, permanent and impermanent.   Ibex who is often characterized through her one horn is at times an abject prostitute and a glorified ritualized figure.  Like Scalapino’s butterfly man in Dead Souls, she is depicted as being criss-crossed with bindings that can also open into wings.  Ibex is a testament to how sexuality in combination with sociality binds and liberates, tattoos and marks:

An ibex with only one horn and a red little tongue sticking out—(green bands as if tattoos on the face)—city, ‘suffering emergence’ seen.  —But where there is no emergence—she’s translucent, kneeling—because they bind them; hooves facing each other ‘only’ in motion.
This may be Egypt in her and she isn’t there.  And cattle.
(fourteen-year-olds brought in are in motion per se.)
(Dancers carry Ibex on uncovered palanquin or litter.  She is kneeling on her knees and on her arms which are curved backward, have hooves on them like the Ibex’s legs.  A black satin wedge-vulva is sewn between her legs and is visible on her front.)  (P, 95)


Small deer with only one horn on face so it has no legs.  (P, 118)

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”—butterfly man, as in Dead Souls, appears invaginated (P, 116):

(Robed man enters flashes, showing brown indigo markings of butterfly on the inside of his robe.)
Man wearing ‘veils’ (face covering using headdress) also and never showing their faces—as a desert tribe, the men doing this in places as well as women.  A face of a man secret to other men—is—not authority, power; as erotic to veiled woman ‘as’ (or in being not) seen. (P, 105)


(Robed man face covered, stands for a moment with robe blowing up around him like Marilyn Monroe standing over the grate with her dress blowing up.) (P, 128)

Both the female ibex and the robed man are characterized as highly sexual, vital, although seeming to have cast off the dominating powers that they cannot, nor seem to want to possess, unlike the “they” who remain duped:

A man having an ego stream sent out to them has authority.  They are responding to his having a position, apparently unable to distinguish this from his quality of apprehension. (P, 122).


“There is no way in which women can apprehend conservative social articulation if they write uniform syntax (dictated by men) that excises the erotic” (P, 25)
“(love) This one other seeming to be one” (P, 114)

In the past year, I have been frequently visited by visual phenomena, as if a dreaming state persists into my waking life.  Although I have at times throughout my life had “an active visual imagination,” rarely, if ever, can I remember visions with a life of their own.   These visions occurring with no sense that they are my real material life, but persisting even amidst conversations with other people.  Of abject, derelict spaces, “the dirty canals floating garbage / shanties on stilts,” entering my consciousness, “syntactically impermanence” (P, 94).  The possibility of being “a medium into whom the ‘ghost’ of this stranger entered” (P, 116).  “Though the ghost mirrors her already existing conflicts,” it “is someone, itself” (P, 116). Someone “who’d been sent into me to be released (by not being in me anymore)” (P, 118).  The seeming fancy of it, the shadowy figure stepping into her again and again.   With each repetition, a pressure around my eyes, a tiredness, as if (s)he were looking through them.  A ringing round and round, and then a joining.  At first a black ring, then a white ring.  Other times, entering her, streaming into her arms, her fingers.            

The trembling of her black part—the man’s robes filling as if sails outside (P, 116)
deer night.  deer night.  at night there being no swimming as not being a pair at all (P, 118)


[1] Leslie Scalapino, The Front Matter, Dead Souls (Hanover: Wesleyan University Press, 1996) 1; hereafter abbreviated F.

[2] Leslie Scalapino, “‘Thinking Serially’ in For Love, Words, and Pieces,” in The Public World / Syntactically Impermanence (Hanover: Wesleyan University Press, 1999), 48; hereafter abbreviated P. This essay in a somewhat different version first appeared in Talisman 8 (Spring 1992): 42-48.

[3] Leslie Scalapino, The Return of Painting, The Pearl, and Orion: A Trilogy (San Francisco: North Point Press, 1991); hereafter abbreviated T.

[4] After living in the Bay Area, I moved to Seattle.

[5] Jeanne Heuving, Offering (Seattle: bcc press, 1997).

[6] I wish to thank members of the Subtext Collective in Seattle for drawing my attention to many important contemporary texts and for many fine discussions on innovative poetry since becoming part of the reading group in 1992, especially Laynie Browne, Joseph Donahue, Herb Levy, Ezra Mark, Bryant Mason, Robert Mittenthal, John Olson, Roberta Olson, and Nico Vassilakas. I also wish to thank several readers of this essay for their insightful commentary, including Kathleen Fraser, Charles Altieri, Alys Weinbaum, and Leslie Scalapino.

[7] Ron Silliman, “The New Sentence,” in The New Sentence, (New York: Roof, 1995); hereafter abbreviated N. Actually, my personal relationship to “the new sentence” is rather more complex than conveyed here. In the early 1980’s I composed a poem, “Sentences That Are Mountains,” apart from any literary scene in which such a construction which be of much poetical or theoretical interest. For me the poem was important at the time because of hearing the sentence as a syntactical unit in advance of writing it (although I would have had a hard time then explaining it this clearly). I chose in this poem to celebrate this discovery by playing with mountainous metaphors that somewhat buried the hearing. Clearly, in my case and in the case of “the new sentence,” a different listening is activated within a modern capitalistic culture in which processes of reification and rationalization make the hearing of language itself separate from the meanings it carries, as any of a number of twentieth century writers and theorists make evident. For a discussion of Marxist cultural commentary that considers the processes of reification and rationalization in relationship to language, Fredric Jameson’s The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1981) is a good place to begin.

[8] For recent work of mine that directly addresses this question, see Jeanne Heuving, “Poetry in Our Political Lives,” Contemporary Literature 37:1 (Summer 1996): 315-332 and a review in Signs 24:2 (Winter 1999): 514-517.

[9] Joseph Conte, Unending Design: The Forms of Postmodern Poetry (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1992) 16; hereafter abbreviated U.

[10] Conte usefully and provocatively distinguishes in multiple ways differences between postmodern and earlier poetic modes, although he does not make the claim that serial and procedural forms are later developments of organic and traditional poetic forms as I do here.

[11] See especially Nancy Vickers, “Diana Described; Scattered Woman and Scattered Rhyme,” in Writing and Sexual Difference, ed. Elizabeth Abel (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982): 95-110. For other feminist criticism that develops this often ignored gender dynamic of love poetry in relationship to lyric poetry more generally, see Rachel DuPlessis, “Pater-Dater: Male Modernists and Female Readers,” Pink Guitar: Writing As Feminist Practice (New York: Routledge, 1990): 41-67; an earlier version of this essay appears in Soup 4 (1984); Jeanne Heuving, Omissions Are Not Accidents: Gender in the Art of Marianne Moore (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1992), especially Chapters 1 and 2. An early version of these chapters appears as “Gender in Marianne Moore’s Art: Can’ts and Refusals,” Sagetrieb 6:3 (Winter 1987): 117-126; Jan Montefiore, Feminism and Poetry (New York: Pandora, 1987).

[12] Charles Bernstein in “Thought’s Measure” Content’s Dream (Sun and Moon Press, 1986) also uses “measure” as a central concept: “I am putting forward a poetry that does not assume a measure but finds it . . . So actively displays how meaning in the world comes to be.” Bernstein notes how “ordering and sequence assert values” (75-76).

[13] As quoted in P from Robert Creeley, Collected Poems of Robert Creeley, 1945-1975 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982) 336 ; hereafter abbreviated CP.

[14] In many ways, Scalapino’s writing and my essay here might be seen as “performative.” As has been noted in diverse ways in performance theory, while meaning systems can be radically altered when put into play through active performance, they are highly resilient to resuming their conventional social configurations when the performance is over.

[15] Julia Kristeva, Powers of Horror: An Essay On the Abject (New York: Columbia University Press, 1982) 5.

16 Jacqueline Rose, Sexuality and the Field of Vision (London: Verso, 1986); hereafter abbreviated S.

[17] The terms “real,” “present,” and “apprehension” are pervasive throughout Scalapino’s prose essays and other writings. For recent use of these terms see P.

[18] Ed Foster, “Leslie Scalapino,” Postmodern Poetry: The Talisman Interviews (Hoboken: Talisman House, 1994) 117.

[19] Leslie Scalapino, How Phenomena Appear to Unfold,” in How Phenomena Appear to Unfold, (Elmwood, CT: Potes & Poets, 1989); hereafter abbreviated H; Bruce Campbell, “Neither In Nor Out: The Poetry of Leslie Scalapino,” Talisman 8 (Spring 1992) 55. Laura Hinton provocatively develops Campbell’s ideas in “Formalism, Feminism, and Genre Slipping in the Poetic Writings of Leslie Scalapino,” Women Poets of the Americas: Towards a Pan-American Gathering, ed. Jacqueline Vaught Brogan and Cordelia Chavez Candelaria, (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1999) 134.

[20] Lyn Hejinian and Leslie Scalapino, Sight, (Washington D.C., 1999) i.

[21] Robert Hass, “Against Botticelli,” in Praise (New York: Ecco, 1979) 10-12; hereafter abbreviated Pr. Adrienne Rich, “Origins and History of Consciousness”; hereafter abbreviated C. Leslie Scalapino, “hmmmm,” in considering how exagerrated music is, (San Francisco: North Point Press, 1982) 1-30.

[22] All these poets during this time were either living in the Bay Area or spending substantial times there where these questions where these questions were especially urgent.

[23] Merrill Cole outlines the tradition of love onto death in this way: “The age-old ideal of redemptive self-sacrifice, with its traceable beginnings in the myths of Osiris and Dionysus, its rearticulation in the Gospels, and its secularization in courtly love, enlists discourses of impossibility, inexpressibility, fatality, and forfeiture to articulate the deepest of interpersonal feelings.” See his the erotics of masculine demise: homosexual sacrifice in modernist poetry (University of Washington: Ph.D. dissertation, 1999). See also Denis De Rougemont, Love in the Western World, (Garden City: Doubleday Anchor Books, 1957).

[24] This very dynamic is not too surprising, a kind of inverse of consummation of masculine courtly love, in which all desire is located within the woman's idealized otherness. Without a comparable “other” for their sublime encounters, women poets frequently turn to other forms of transcendence. Eavan Boland trips over this terrain in interesting, if also problematic ways, in her Object Lessons: The Life of the Woman Poet in Our Time (New York: W. W. Norton, 1995) 202-238.

[25] Conte also describes Scalapino’s attitude as one of “insouciance” (U, 277).

[26] H.D., Notes on Thought and Vision (San Francisco: New Directions, 1982) 29, 30.

[27] I make this leap of judgment because of the many parallel descriptions between the person and life of the protagonist in The Return of Painting and the “historically real” Leslie Scalapino. For Scalapino’s discussion of Cindy Sherman’s simulacral replication of herself in photographic likenesses, see Leslie Scalapino, “Pattern - and the ‘Simulacral,’” in H, 25-37.

[28] Orion is dedicated to Norma Cole, Ron Silliman, Tom White, and David Gelfand. See T, 149.

[29] See back cover F.

Bio: Jeanne Heuving has published widely on twentieth century poetry and poetics, including the book Omissions Are Not Accidents: Gender in the Art of Marianne Moore. Her essay on Leslie Scalapino has been formative for her new book project, Restive Eros: Poetic Possession and Dispossession in the Twentieth Century. Her cross genre writing, Gaudy Night, appears in HOW2: 4 in the New Writings section edited by Carla Harryman. She is on the faculty of the University of Washington, Bothell, and on the graduate faculty of the University of Washington. She is a recipient of NEH and Fulbright research grants, having just been awarded the H.D. Fellowship in American and English literature at the Beinecke Library at Yale for next year.

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