Miranda Mellis and Frances Richard each published two new books in 2012. Mellis’ novella The Spokes came out from Solid Objects, while Sidebrow Press published her collection of stories, None of This Is Real. Richard’s books of poems The Phonemes and Anarch. came out from Les Figues Press and Futurepoem, respectively. Fictioneer and poet—who are first cousins—conversed via email between January and April, 2013.
Miranda Mellis: In the short public conversation that followed our reading in Brooklyn last year, you described the endings of the stories in None of This Is Real as precipice-like: Abrupt fade-outs that left you hanging/falling, unresolved and—do I remember correctly?—devastated. For you, those endings weren’t endings but cuts. I responded by saying I don’t feel the muscle of closure. The endings feel true to me, because the stories exist in worlds where there are radical discontinuities. The ending of The Spokes was, as I recall, more satisfying for you because there is a rally with the final line: “Still, we should try.”
Your book The Phonemes also has a series of endings and is re/cyclic. We as readers keep returning, for instance, to the beginning of the book to access the sonic key that enables us to register the typographic sounds scored into the poems. We keep returning to the beginning to hear.
Your legend gives us two columns of information. In the left column are typographical symbols. The right is a poetic index of what the symbols stand for: idiosyncratic sounds such as lullabies, wind in grass, juddering engines. These symbols, or drawings, occur in the poems like lines of language, but also as sound-cues. They stimulate imaginary sounds, creating a synaesthetic reading experience.
The reader refers to the key-code to internally “play” the sounds and soon becomes semi-fluent in the semaphore. Reading and listening occur in tandem; we can hear ourselves reading. The sonic symbols unfold as a unified visual and acoustic landscape, whether they cue caws, cogs or cognitions. The typographic sonic cues are a product of you, the poet, imagining how sound looks, and your sound symbols, and the symbols’ poetic definitions, are ekphrases. Rather than begin and end, the poems ebb tidally—in a tidalectic!
When I do a distant read or gestalt visualization of the contents of The Phonemes, what I see are cyclic movements, like sewing or rowing, what Kamau Brathwaite calls “tidalectics.” The book ends with a “Giant / mass of matter swarming in.” This break is the last in a series of caesuras—not closures nor completed actions, but not precipices either. Rather, here is a description of a being overtaken, swarmed, at once by what matters, and by matter itself (including text). It’s an image of almost over-fullness, a metonym for being done.
My “endings” are affected by my life story, and by our overlapping autobiographies, but also by a certain disciplinary training in anti-closure. What inflects your “sense of an ending” in writing?
Frances Richard: “Still, we should try.” To know ourselves and the ancestors, in order to succeed better (or fail better) at managing existence, legacy, memory, the persistence of loss. I hear in this line, funnily enough, the end of Candide: “We must cultivate our garden.” In short, this may or may not be the best of all possible worlds—and both The Spokes and None of This Is Real hedge that bet by multiplying worlds, so that relative best- and worst-nesses can be compared and shown to be interlinked, and therefore mutually dependent, and therefore never absolutely best nor worst. But, regardless of stable value or its breakdown, we should try to grow something, do useful work, address culture at the level of vegetables and flowers—and circuses and mutations, both of which figure prominently in the worlds you conjure. Voltaire’s Candide is a young Mr. Magoo who wanders through exaggerated dangers, constantly getting bashed but bouncing back. The speakers in The Spokes and None of This Is Real are like that too. Far smarter than Candide. But still questers with a magical ability to register pain and confusion, to cross boundaries, without getting killed or giving in (completely) to despair. Or, rather: without losing humor and a sense of themselves as fictions.
I find the ending of The Spokes more devastating, actually, because of this clear-eyed appraisal of the condition of self, family, connectedness. In None of This Is Real, the signal jams, the picture pixelates, the personality glitches out.
In other words, I don’t feel “the muscle of closure” (this is ickily sphincter-like) either. I remember as a kid experiencing an actual, physical yearning for satisfying endings in books, a longing for the chiming of a cosmic chord that I could feel resonate in my body. I wanted resolution and responded to it with what seems now like a basically religious sense of belief and relief. I still enjoy it intensely at times. But I don’t write it.
I love what you say about tidalectics in Phonemes, sewing/rowing or self-referential and re-referential reading/looking/listening/decoding. That is as good a description as any of my “sense of an ending”—a suturing-together of meaning from recursive scraps.
I too, of course, have been trained by anti-closure, resistance to master narratives and transcendent truths. The child narcotically soothed by grand and piercing endings in novels grew up to be the college student thrilled to read deconstructivism, gender theory and linguistics, because instead of trying to fill in the gaps in meaning that I couldn’t not be aware of, those theories mapped the gaps. And in so doing, pointed out that while language fails to unveil true, fixed, monadic things, it is a thing; words, punctuation, sound, print, all have materiality. I like matter because I’m sure it exists—I am it; I refute it thus! And yet, and as a result: dark matter, black holes, string theory, Higgs Boson. Matter, like language, is rife with incomprehensible, quasi-mythical, supercharged distances and enticingly described breakdowns.
The “swarm” of matter is a remnant—a sort of dust—of that devotional absorption in realism, in the novel or epiphanic lyric. I’m still looking for “the real” made manifest in art. But what I come up with is code-swarm, which can be rendered into something readable only with an alloy of artifice. Dust of the real held in shape in an artifice-matrix.
Those distances, those anti-matter holes in meaning, can be reservoirs of radical delight. But also of trauma. Both your books brilliantly register social and environmental trauma in the DNA, in the bodies and perceptions of individuals. There is O, who is mutating into a shark in the title story in None of This Is Real; and Lutz Junior, in the story “Transformer,” whose mother has drifted into virtual addiction; and the people in the never-ending, Hadean coffee line in “The Coffee Jockey” (these last two also in NoTIR); and in The Spokes the mother-and-daughter acrobats, who play out a reverse Demeter-and-Persephone tale in which the living daughter pursues the dead mother in the afterlife. Can you talk about the difference between public and private, local and trans-historical trauma? Is there a difference? (This is like asking: Is there a membrane between the self and the world? Which is like asking, “What is the world?” and “What is the self?”)
MM: In moments of clarity, I experience the membrane between self and world as a necessary delusion, the way that a mountain, when looked at from a distance, is as small as your thumb. In order to navigate, our eyes allow us to see things in perspectives that are both real and unreal. (I have been looking at Mount Rainier a lot, now that I live in Olympia, and it’s incredible how changeable it is.)
We elide and allude to the membrane via literary forms. The story and the poem allow us to make visible the ways in which public and historical traumas make possible private and local traumas, by providing the contexts through which violence is normalized. The imbrications of our domestic acts of deranged violence and our interventionist militarism is an open secret. Argentine fiction writer Ricardo Piglia, in his “Theses on the Short Story” (in an issue of New Left Review, circa 2011) writes: “A visible story hides a secret tale. . . the effect of the secret story appears on the surface.” So the need to write stories has to do with what is absent or unsaid—an intuition of something other than what is, and the need to allegorize that which can’t be worked through or illuminated in any other way, being otherwise unbearable or untranslatable.
In this sense, perhaps thinking and fictional composition equally require a locus of non-obviousness, opacity even. This makes me think about the “amygdala hijack,” a physiological response that allows us to block traumatic memories in order to survive. W. G. Sebald works on this in Austerlitz (2001), showing that amnesia and bodily disassociation result from historical displacement, war—so that to remember who one is, is to realize that one’s entire life has been, on some level, inextricable from the fact of genocide. Your question also makes me think about barely conscious atavisms, where we inherit behaviors from near forebears, strategies that helped them survive pogroms, or slavery or other traumas. We ourselves may not, for the moment, live in those historical crosshairs. Yet we tremble; we know that others, our contemporaries, are living through the like. There is the need for that membrane, to control grief and fear. But then the membrane collapses, sometimes, doesn’t it? For all sorts of reasons. We call it mental illness, but illness is an attempt to heal.
The effects of such breakdowns in the defenses that keep us functional have always shown up, for me, as things to work on with writing. What does a mind resort to when subjective experience and agency are not, or are no longer (for any number of reasons), matched or contained by receptive/reflective others, be those others imaginary or real? People can make efficacious use of the “wrong” map to get un-lost (as Miroslav Holub observes in his poem Brief Reflection on Maps, 1977). And I include here the logic of magical thinking, where the young allegorize antidotes to their pain, or invent prophesy and prolepsis as intuitive forms or drafts of forms, which try to prefigure and/or predict survival. We use language to make, and to make things up, in order to get at what’s actual. But what’s actual is not the same as what’s factual.
I guess the point is that forms are epistemologies.
Your language is itself a plenum; it doesn’t just restructure the given world but provides a new one. You were talking about the deliciousness of novels, the narcotic soothe of grand endings and the pleasures of absorption. There is a rich contradiction: We take profound pleasure in literary closure that we ourselves resist providing.
It’s not that I don’t want to please the reader, but I don’t want to do it at the cost of my own truth-sense. I know you studied Roland Barthes in your young and formative years. Geoff Dyer describes Barthes’ writing as a “summing-up that is also a perpetual setting-forth.” This is akin to the tidalectic: Each wave is complete and instantly recedes.
And right now you are working on a book about Gordon Matta-Clark, thinking about his use of writing as an artist making interventions, cuts into the membranes of buildings and, more broadly, of public space. What interests you about his writing? Do you think you can trace an arc, from Barthes to Matta-Clark, that would say something about what has remained persistently compelling to you as a poet-critic over the years?
FR: Would it be glib to say that both Barthes and Matta-Clark are interested in what we’ve been calling the membrane, the factual-not-actual distance between one ego/body/experience/representation, and another? Both explore what Barthes in Camera Lucida (1980) calls the “this will have been,” the fold in time instantiated in the photograph. Photography and film are central to Matta-Clark’s work, because his architectural interventions were all demolished; his building cuts exist now only as sculptural fragments, photographs, films, verbal descriptions, memories, fantasies. His writings comprise a layer in this tissue of remainders, traces pointing to a connective void.
Following Barthes, what is bewitching for me in the photograph—and mutatis mutandis, in other media, including writing—is that closure glitches. The photograph is particularly effective at framing the imbrication of past and present, real and unreal, private and historical. One split-second, camera-distorted instant opens and re-opens, constantly, repetitively, enlivened by each look. Yet it remains also permanently, hopelessly dead, closed, flat, distorted, rebuffing every look. The photograph—the story, poem, work of art—as Still-Face Experiment:
Like the longing for narrative closure, the desire for a reanimated photograph is for me an almost-primal feeling, a feeling of the primal-once-removed. This is another way of putting what you said before about “nonobviousness,” or “opacity.” The immobile or opaque place marks the untranslatable, the unmanageable, that has been allegorized out of the bodily-real into the representational-artificed. But whereas realist fiction mocks up or enforces a coherence that will last at least until you put the book down, the unseeing look on the face of the photograph—its still-face mode of looking through you—leaves desire stuttering and sparking faultily between you and the suggestive artifact. As Barthes says of the handsome, vital-looking, condemned man, Lewis Payne: “He is dead, and he is going to die.”
Of course: [insert family photo here].
This is why, as a child, I adored the device in TV shows of starting with a vintage photograph that slowly warms, dissolves, animates to become the living, moving, present scene. Time travel through the portal of the photographic image, wish-fulfillment.
The prolepsis of death and vanishment—this sense of the past vaulting chimerically in front of the present—is a form that, as you say, becomes an epistemology. Some situation, whatever it is, is rendered visually or fictively/poetically, and thatis now: The situation is present and embodied, legible in real time in the artifact, the image, language, structure. But/and: This now is inaccessible, is only a sign for itself. The braiding-together of yes-real-here and no-false-absent is a basic valence of desire.
It’s not an experience of the uncanny, exactly, because it isn’t about repressing a forbidden desire that then stalks back into view, monstrously empowered as a “separate,” “unfamiliar” entity. It’s a sense of myself as weirdly distributed across simultaneous planes of materiality. The photographed body is both here and not here, so I too must be here and not here, because I am a body. Language is both material and immaterial; ergo I am both too, because I am constituted in language. I come to the dissatisfaction with narrative closure in fiction, or the interest in a poetics of sound and consciously constructed reading, because both acknowledge this sense of absence and presence as not either/or but both-and-yet. This is what a word does. It’s what all representation does.
All of which has to do with Matta-Clark because of his own merry death-dance with erasure. He made these massive, labor-intensive, sweaty, quixotic, intensely material interventions into built space, and photographed and filmed them. Then the heavy, dusty, steel-brick-plaster matter was pulverized, while the flickering representations are still with us. All Gordon’s work becomes a “this will have been.” In my favorite of his films, Fresh Kill (1972), he crashes his truck deliberately into the blade of a bulldozer at the Fresh Kills landfill on Long Island and edits the film in such a way that we see the crash happen over and over, and never see him get out of the truck. Each time, he is freshly killed. But we know he’s not dead, because he cut the film together.
Even the phrase “to cut together” gets at what we’re discussing.
Matta-Clark’s language is filled with hyphenations, puns, crossings-out, ditto-marks, variants. This excites me because he is obsessed with the properties of multiplicity and instability in language, its ability to not only denote or express but to enact the both-and-yet, what he calls “short-term eternity.”
Another thing that compels me about both Barthes and Matta-Clark is a very free mixing of esoteric, abstracted, conceptual propositions with basic, mundane, anti-aesthetic stuff. They both have a shamelessly affectionate, curious, impassioned response to our dumpy, ugly, late-capitalist landscape and are both elegant and bold in their takings-apart of products and situations, their diagramming and recoding of them.
How would you make sense of this absent-present I am trying to describe? And how does a story start for you? With an image? A situation? A character?
MM: Insert family photo here. . .when, in Anarch., you quip:
I too dislike it
I laughed out loud. And when you line up (so to speak) “Not the veil / but the lining of the veil,” with a child’s grief-induced constipation, it makes me wonder if the body’s invisible striations—our liminal viscera—are what drive us to representation. I think about photos of the dead as absent-present membrane, set like talismans around us, as if to rivet the dead to materiality and home and time. I find them hard, almost impossible to look at, though they exist for that purpose, there on the wall or mantle.
Yet, not to look directly is not the same as to forget.
Maybe the photographs are little stations for staving off forgetting (whether we look or not), containers for that dislocation/dizzying breach you speak of. What did we do before photographs, to remember? Singing, pilgrimage, ritual? Maybe the photograph—flat, frozen little horizon—causes our remembrances to be overly optical, isolating, making us forget touch, sound, smell? And might this be especially true in an atheistic family such as ours, so deracinated and historical-materialist, in which Judeity is a set of geo-political and historical problems, traumas, contradictions—and not at all a religious inheritance, with all the concomitant senses of belonging and rituals of remembrance? I’m not romanticizing; I’d rather cope with our family’s political despairs and obsessions than be caught in a clan in the grip of exclusionary religiosity. And yet, there is something forlorn and abject about the photograph as emblem of the decontextualized life, the ritual object gathering dust. The feeling I am thinking of is related to the sometimes-funereal feeling of archives and museums, where objects usually intended for living use, communal and connective purposes, become strictly specular, evidentiary—at most sensual.
I often feel unmoored by photographs of the dead, though perhaps no more so than by their signatures, clothing, jewelry, perfume, which also become uncanny, like talking dolls, fictive characters coming to life. “Even the fictions are fictions,” Nathanaël Stephens writes.
But, to your last question: Stories begin variously, but it’s often with an image of a person, usually female, who finds herself working at something basically unworkable in some unfathomable situation, using a tool that is specific to her or the scene but somehow ineffectual (no tool can be the “right tool for the job,” if the job is absurd). Lisa Sweet, an artist whose work revolves around religious imagery, recently pointed out to me that characters in my stories are often availed of what are called, in the iconography of Catholic martyrs, “attributes,” i.e. for St. Catherine, the Catherine Wheel; St. Brigid, facial distortion; St. Christina, the millstone.
I started a story a couple of days ago like this:
Snake thin, head hooded, dragging the rope (it used to be a thread), she winds around the milk-glass mountain, slicing the ice with her skate-feet.
Often a story revolves around a character’s attempt to remediate something or describes a kind of mending or necessary labor that will entail suffering, blindness and encumbrance. Here the “attributes” are a rope and bladed feet. The impossible task is to wrap a “milk-glass mountain” (whatever that is) in rope (the method involves allegorical thinking but that doesn’t mean that the stories are allegories or require allegorical hermeneutics).
A colleague at Evergreen, Alice Nelson, asked recently, apropos this question of narrative closure vs. precipice: is there some middle ground between falsely reassuring closure and the abyss? She went on to say that she thought the abyss could become a habit; she used the word addiction. I contrast what she might be diagnosing—addiction to the abyssal—with the signifying practices of activist friends (e.g., the inimitable Budner twins, Ali and Brooke):
They are positing political desires in hopeful, insistent terms. Perhaps re-imagining our bad realities through allegory is simply emotionally easier, because they’re more familiar, than trying to constitute the yet-to-be. Maybe the realist’s utopia is best worked on in real time by real bodies and not on paper in the suspended, psychological temporality of the dead and the fictive. Surely the world needs hope. But perhaps, too, the dead need worlds. And perhaps some of us are here to make worlds for the dead, while some of us are here to make chances for the living.
FR: Your last line here would be a lovely, resonant place to end.
But, sorry, sense-of-an-ending! I want to add a few things.
The “addiction to the abyssal” is a motivating interest in Anarch.. How to respond, in ways that feel attentive to detail, to disaster and malfeasance? As you say above: “The effects of such breakdowns in the defenses that keep us functional have always shown up, for me, as things to work on with writing.”
Give violent details an inch, and they take, inevitably (justifiably) miles; harm boils out of one toxic molecule or bad-faith statement into spreading slicks of crime, injury, grief, perhaps irreversible depredations and genocides on the collective psyche/soma. Those details become a rattling scree on the slippery slope into the abyss, but it seems unconscionable not to think through them, traverse them, as carefully as possible. So, how not to slip down in, and fall and fall until falling becomes its own justification? How not to become addictively, miserably, voluptuously satisfied by the horror of the fall, because it’s “real”? Milton’s Satan vows, “Evil be thou my good,” but he does so in despair; this statement is an anti-logos, a declaration that decreates. Anarch. tries to speak to this, tries to, as you say, “remediate something or describe a kind of mending or necessary labor that will entail suffering, blindness and encumbrance.” Except that I don’t write character or plot, so words and line/stanza formations become my characters and plots and have to bear the encumbrance, stumble in the blindness.
The photograph you insert above was taken in the hallway in our grandmother’s house, a house built by her father. It’s in this hallway that the family photographs reside. I like the hallucinatory, red/green glow of this photo. Under those glowing glass panels on the wall and table are faces, invisible here, made of nothing but ink and paper even when standing next to them—and yet, through the genetic resonance in our own faces, they’re all still around. I see our great-grandfather’s face in our uncle’s face. The portal opens to the other world in the most mundane way. And I’m interested that you use the word “uncanny” to describe the talking dolls, the animate fictions, that waft out of photos, signatures, clothing, jewelry, perfumes. I have the same experience; the signature touches me as the presence of the body or sound of the voice would; the clothes or jewelry still in the drawers of that house emit unbelievably powerful vibes as parts of the distributed, decomposited family body (and to the issue of our deracinated Judeity I would add our deracinated Catholicism, equally obsessed with the talismanic potency of the dismembered, importantly suffering body, the relic. No wonder your allegorical trauma-workers end up with “attributes”).
So: Am I protesting too much in saying that my photograph-desire is not a confrontation with the uncanny, because it is not predicated on repression?
If this photograph-desire is predicated on repression, repression of what? A too-raw experience of mortality? Maybe I think of a photograph as still impenetrable, because if one opened all the way it would open onto chaos, a blown-out hatch leading straight into deep space—the way Satan’s desire in Paradise Lost opens into Hell. The burden of remediation that your plucky heroines take up, are schlepping through dystopia when this or that scene opens: Their task is, as it were, to close the hatch before it sucks everything including personhood, communication and sequential time into the vacuum. To keep the hatch—the membrane—in place, so that confrontation with the real doesn’t totally undo the story.
As long as we’re still on the French-critic channel, I think about Kristeva’s semiotic—the pulsatile, spastic bodily energies that have been channeled underground by one-way entry into symbolic order, but keep filtering up into language nevertheless. Language and meaning remain porous to these tectonic energies, and at the same time are fracked by the pressures of ego. If forms are epistemologies, then a language that shows its cracks and folds, its porousness, helps me understand my visceral-emotional and my conscious-political experiences of incoherence, trauma, unmeaning—and, also, it should be said, of joy and pleasure.
MM: In spelling out an experiential-definitional difference between the upwelling chaos of the semiotic chora as Kristeva describes it, and the addictively abysmal (Satanic) abyss, I think you’ve limned an answer to your own question (if this photograph-desire is predicated on repression, repression of what?). That abyss could be an aesthetic habit, without being an emotional habitus.
Chora may be noise, but it’s also plenum. I think of John Cage’s piece for 12 radios (Imaginary Landscape No. 4, 1951), where beginning, middle and end are replaced by selected durations, and the chora becomes chorale. We hear the radios and tune in to our own attention, to our own listening. And to the chaos of contingency, to connectivity and resonance, to language as potential: chora. With Cage, the score or structure is repeated, but not the content—never the image, story, sound or sequence. Like your poems, but not like photographs, his pieces are like totipotent cells, whose destiny emerges in relation to their environment.
“Madness is also an excess of remembrance,” Shoshana Felman writes. Is sanity, then, just the right deficit of remembrance? A photograph, so dead, so disproportionate: Might it represent the possibility of a magically apt proportion?
We know that every time we remember something, we change it. When we look at photographs or films of the dead, is our memory being fossilized, over-determined?
For an aniconic maker like Cage, content and intention were serious ethical problems, because to prescribe content is to manipulate. Equal parts inheritor of rupture and inheritor of rupture-become-convention, he knew that—as we’ve been saying—a form or score is an epistemology. Content is always political. And he knew that un-reflexive epistemologies are really dangerous and fraught. His bravery and wisdom were to make work anyway, despite the risks, but to make visible the recycling actions of attention. His work is so ethical in that way, so inclusive. I feel relief when I think of how he structured the unbearable lightness, or likeness, of being. He is the opposite of the artist of the abyss; he was just not interested in that. But then, I remember reading that he said there was “just the right amount of suffering in the world.” I thought he was crazy and that such a statement was horrendously crude. One in three women and girls will be raped or beaten in her lifetime. In proportion to what may we say this represents “just the right amount of suffering”? Can you make sense of that statement?
I have often felt that suffering—both existential pain and the trauma of violence—is “the real,” in an everyday way. The abyss is in the kitchen, by no means an innocent place; the kitchen is a veritable lake of fire, though not all the time. Suffering is intermittent, but even small durations of trauma can be impossible to recover from.
There’s another story in which Cage asks Sri Ramakrisna why is there evil in the world and he replies, to thicken the plot. In other words, to make stories with. There is no other reason to write fiction, for me, than the fact that there is far too much precisely unnecessary suffering, because of human cruelty and stupidity. In a recent book called Globalectics (2012), Ngugi wa Thiong’o describes fiction in colonial, neocolonial and postcolonial contexts as the “original poor theory,” a genre for analyzing social processes, almost a precursor to theory. Virginia Woolf essays a related point when she speculates as to why it is that her antecedents mostly wrote novels—which is that fiction is the genre for when there is a lack of time, privacy or leisure, but an ever-present involvement in relationships that allow for self-reflection and character study. Both show how artistic forms and liberation processes are linked. For Cage, as well perhaps, though differently in that his proleptic forms can expose a usually invisible “ground plan”: the score, as invisible structure, could be a metonym for ideology, for what underlies social infrastructures and habits. What could be more salutary, then, than making those structures audible, visible and changing them? It’s not impossible to rehearse this, or even sometimes actualize this, in aesthetics, whereas (under neo-liberal, imperial crony capitalism) it seems almost impossible to enact it in politics.
FR: There’s so much going on in this conversation.
Oddly enough—or not—”just the right amount of suffering in the world,” echoes the Leibnizian or Panglossian platitude in Candide, that we live in the best of all possible worlds. I have a hard time with this too, as I do when people say, in comforting self-help-speak, “You’re just where you’re supposed to be.” Supposed by whom? The right amount of suffering for whose purposes?
“Still, we should try.” As in Beckett’s oft-quoted mantra (“Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better”), or the bodhisattva vow in Buddhism to save all sentient beings (which is impossible but has to be vowed in good faith anyway), writing often seems such a weak and quixotic implement to wield against spectacular capital and its sclerotic politics, the overheated pantomime of neoliberalism and the crushingly direct violences that are its alter ego. But that doesn’t let us off the hook. Plus, I confessed that my religion is, basically, books, and I’ve learned most of my ethics, most of my epistemology from writers and artists.
There’s another way I think about balance and apt amount too. It does make a kind of sense if I consider that humans are evolutionary, just as animals and plants are, and what we evolved is mind. We are not so formidable physically. Compared to a polar bear, or a whale, or a chameleon, or a hummingbird, or a bee, we are unimpressive. But our special adaptation is mind, and the technologies given rise to by mind—including language, including the concept of abstract meaning itself. Mind belongs to the composite biome, where suffering and slaughter are actually quite well calibrated with emergence and creation.
Unless, of course, we language-using animals are masterminding the biome out of existence. But that’s another milk-glass mountain to wrap with a different rope. . .
The upwelling rhythm, inscription-pulse, membrane-tremor in the chora present themselves as formal options in writing because this is a means of notating the listening process, a way of jotting down what it’s like to try to listen to, attend to, feel, the process of making meaning with a mind. Fish gotta swim, bird gotta fly, human gotta think about trauma, self and world.
And to take up the thread about uncanniness—magic, ghostliness, a spiritual field with God leached out and technology built in—what you are saying is that the family-photographic uncanny would not be uncanny in the strict (Freudian) sense, because it’s governed by tidalectics and desire rather than super-ego and repression.
Re: Anarch., re the hell-realm-turning-into-kitchen: the attempt to balance suffering by non-innocent but non-noxious contrivance or compromise. . .not to compare myself to Cage, but this is what Anarch. explores. My title, as you know, comes partly from Paradise Lost. Anarch is the honorific Milton gives to Chaos, anti-master of the anti-universe. Chaos’s consort is Night—the Anarcheen, the Anarchani—and Satan encounters these lords of antimatter on his passage through the void, on his way out of Hell back to Eden to engineer the Fall. I’ve been inspired by feminist readings of Paradise Lost (for example, by Christine Froula) that identify womb-envy as a motive throughout the poem, arguing that Adam, God, and Milton envy Eve’s creative capacity.
Milton sets up this dynamic before we meet Eve—before she’s been given form—by presenting Chaos/Night/the pre-creative void as feminine. In the first lines of the poem, the Holy Spirit impregnates the void. Milton can’t bring himself to make an explicit statement about an actual pre- or extra-divine femininity, so he gives the non-universe a nominal king, the Anarch. But the impossible non-space between rigidly gated Hell and the created universe proper is palpably womb-like and dangerously lacking the organizing presence of the father. It’s infinite, dark, alogical, totipotent.
The other source for my title is Matta-Clark’s neologism anarchitecture, which posits a ludic, nonsensical other to the arkhos tekton, the master builder who institutes foundational rational order.
Milton read Plato very carefully, so his vision of pre-rational chaos comes directly from the vision of the chora in Timaeus—which, of course, is where Kristeva and Derrida find it too.
Matta-Clark read Paradise Lost very carefully. He probably read it in an English class at Cornell University, but some of the marginalia in his copy clearly represent his own thoughts rather than a noting-down of what his professor was saying, and for the rest of his life he kept this battered paperback that is more heavily annotated than any other book in his library.
Matta-Clark is, furthermore, distinctly if indirectly linked to Cage, in at least two directions. Both Matta, his father, and Anne Clark Matta Alpert, his mother, were friends with Cage and Merce Cunningham in New York in the forties and fifties and knew their work well. And in the sixties and seventies, the dancers around Judson Church—Yvonne Rainer, Trisha Brown, Steve Paxton, Barbara Dilley, Penelope Newcomb, Carmen Beuchat, Robert Morris—were influenced by Cunningham and Cage, and Matta-Clark was influenced quite forcefully by them.
Here’s one more tidbit in your last response that I want to take up: “What did we do before photographs, to remember? Singing, pilgrimage, ritual? Maybe the photograph—flat, frozen little horizon—causes our remembrances to be overly optical, isolating. . .”
In Phonemes, in the opening poem, “Blush Alarm,” there is this line: “People experience memories in a brain / uninvented by movies.” This came from asking myself exactly these questions.
I want to write about the photograph of Frances Deborah Libby with the doll—at age what? Four? Making it approximately 1915. I want to write about this image, but it gives me vertigo: fuzzy white hat, hand in pocket, fat little calves. Also her unsentimental adult self-appraisal—I remember her looking at this photograph (she was probably in her eighties at that point) and exclaiming, “Oh, isn’t that silly? The photographer told me to talk to the doll.” Barthes writes exquisitely about the Winter Garden Photograph of his mother, but he doesn’t reproduce it. Maybe we can reproduce the Talking Doll Photograph of our grandmother but can’t write about it.
MM: The baby doll seems alive to me in its stance (questioning, even, in its expression), whereas our little grandmother seems almost burdened, tired out already by the task of disciplining. This must be me projecting! But there is something about the way she is pointing. . . the representation of our grandmother as a child, pointing at a representation of a baby—like Russian dolls—and we are the outermost body, large, enclosing the others.
You write in the long poem, “Anarch.” about pre-Socratic theories of the arche, the first or primal matter. Maybe Miletus of Thales had it right in claiming water as the first principle, insofar as the womb is (for mammal mamas) the primordial, life-giving, fluid abyss. In his writings on affects, Sylvan Tomkins spells out the way in which a child’s development is contingent on some larger body’s interest in her interests. To be the subject of a gestation could feel like being the subject of some larger body’s total interest. (The original “totality”?) In which case, the primordial principle might be none other than love—the all-inclusive, un-ambivalent, non-psychological love between auto-poetic, symbiotic, inter-animating organisms.
The waning of the affect of interest, whether from within one’s self, and/or from others, occurring for whatever reason (from overwork to trauma)—or the wrong kind of interest (lechery and exploitation)—precipitates a fall into that other kind of abyss that is not chora-like, or arche-like, but is rather a being-towards-death or hatred: depression; malaise; despair; rage. Though it is problematic to assign ethical effects to aesthetic projects, and I feel suspicious of my own disposition to mete out proscriptions and prescriptions (where do I get that from. . .ha), it seems like we are honing in on an experience of the uncanny that isn’t predicated on a prior repression. A canny uncanny. A can-do uncanny within us and around us, an intimate free-associating disassociation—and even respite, as you write in Anarch.:
sand and slime exist outside of language, the relief of it!
i.e., There is relief in a world that is not bound by language, a world that exists without us, where creatures wind their works, their architectures, around and despite us.
It’s a relief, as you say, to be decentered, to imagine other kinds of worlds and world-making.
I think of Sun Ra, who had this longing to go to another world, a beautifully uncanny place free of racism and oppression—and with his music and art, made another world.
Or, more laterally, of Robert Smithson’s theory of the nonsite: a place that can be a thought about as, without resembling, another place—how a place can be mostly a thought about another place, or a thought about a thought about another place. But, as Robert Creeley put it in a poem to Stan Brakhage:
if we go back to where
we never were we’ll
be there. [Repeat] But
And, “Here is always somewhere else,” said Bas Jan Ader and, “This is not it,” said Lynne Tillman, and “Life is elsewhere,” said Milan Kundera and “I’m not there,” said Bob Dylan.
And said Mahmoud Darwish in State of Siege (2002):
Do not trust the poem—
The daughter of absence
It is neither intuition nor is it
But rather, the sense of the abyss
Miranda Mellis is the author of two novellas, The Spokes and The Revisionist; a book of stories, None of This Is Real; and two chapbooks, The Quarry (Trafficker, 2013) and Materialisms (Portable Press at Yo-Yo Labs, 2009). This Summer find a new short story by her in Conjunctions:60; an interview with Robert Glück in The Believer; and a concrete poem-cum-essay on the painter Xylor Jane in Xylor Jane 19991 (forthcoming, PICTUREBOX). She is an editor at The Encyclopedia Project and teaches at The Evergreen State College.
Frances Richard is the author of Anarch. (Futurepoem, 2012), The Phonemes (Les Figues Press, 2012) and See Through (Four Way Books, 2003), as well as the chapbooks Shaved Code (Portable Press at Yo-Yo Labs, 2008) and Anarch. (Woodland Editions, 2008). She writes frequently about contemporary art and is co-author, with Jeffrey Kastner and Sina Najafi, of Odd Lots: Revisiting Gordon Matta-Clark’s “Fake Estates” (Cabinet Books, 2005). Currently she teaches at the California College of the Arts in San Francisco.