On Reading Leslie Scalapino’s The Dihedrons Gazelle-Dihedrals Zoom

Posted by @ 7:28 pm on November 16th, 2010

I mentioned the difficulty of reading Leslie Scalapino’s wordfall, The Dihedrons Gazelle-Dihedrals Zoom, to Lindsey Boldt, who published the book with Post Apollo Press. She responded generously, saying

I agree that Scalapino’s work can feel very difficult, and this book I think feels especially daunting. Its prose is incredibly tangled and slippery to an almost maddening degree, which is what makes it so taxing but also so rewarding. I felt really anxious when I first sat down to read it and really fought to understand it on a sense-meaning level. I don’t think I’d faced such a literary challenge since college. I finally caved at some point and just let it turn into a sensory experience, which turned out to be really fun.

Certainly that’s an adequate and lovely review in itself, though it hardly matches the book’s blurbs: Fanny Howe calls it a “mystical vision” and Charles Bernstein said the book “is an ekphrastic implosion inside our severed human-body/animal-mind.” Talk about whoa! Michael McClure said the book comes from the “spagyric hinterlands of purest imagination,” and Etel Adnan called it our Divine Comedy but with “more humanity and more derision.”

So how is it that these syntactically dense word sets come to matter? Even the 176-page book itself is difficult to characterize; the jacket is fuzzy, kind of ugly, an aesthetic that goes hand-in-hand with difficult work in the same way that academic journals forgo cover art for a table of contents–a de facto caveat emptor: there’s no gloss here. In spite of that, this book is glossy, and justifies its $29 price tag with heavy, bright paper and fourteen provocative images by artists like Kiki Smith and Jess (Jess Collins). It feels as dense as it is.

Accordingly, I’m interested in how the bookiness affects the work; at first it increases the austerity and limits my interaction. The artifact in particular makes the writing challenging, while the writing challenges the book’s function; how do you design a serious but inviting book? I think Scalapino and her editors were conscious of the challenge, and the integration of the pictures helps (it’s made explicit, however, that the pictures are not illustrations of the work, or inspirations for it — just representations of the same reality).

But if you check out these excerpts from the book, you’ll see the poems don’t actually seem all that hard. In fact, its language is just the sort of thing an htmlgiant reader might expect to find propped here. I bet Chris Higgs will agree that this first sentence glows: “Out of which the silent dactylology from emerald wastes little girls crossing the roads arriving the green meadows full they do the cakewalk and are celebrated with cakes for their most intricate steps.” Like Lindsey Boldt said, as a sensory experience that linguistic pile-on is a blast.

From the introductory note by Leslie Scalapino:

The Dihedrons Gazelle-Dihedrals Zoom was written by leafing through Random House Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary choosing words at random by process of alexia, not as mental disorder but word-blindness: trance-like stream overriding meaning, choice, and inhibition. The intention to bring about an unknown future was offset by this action of alexia making as it happens sensual exquisite corpses—leading to the discovery that there isn’t any future, isn’t even any present. Such an exquisite corpse, read, is in an instant yet not even in ‘a present.’ Outside’s events unite gluing to each other a single object. That which had already existed is by chance.

Even that introduction frustrated me with how much it takes for granted. I understand how choosing random words can create sensual exquisite corpses, and I’m big into theories of time, but I am not following how these strings of words illustrate that the future and the present don’t exist. I don’t even know what that means. But when I read an introduction to a process, I’m just looking for a lucid explanation of what to expect. Scalapino isn’t providing a key for the reader, just another lock.

The more I read from the collection, though, the more I understand that in a meaningful way, through sonic and syntactic recurrence, through oblique references to things-which-stand-not-for-themselves (eg. Palin, planes, deb, something complicated about the basics of baseball), the text unlocks itself. Included in this unlocking are the ideas of time that Scalapino mentions in her note, and in that way I think the book becomes more than just a fun book for Kool-Aid drinkers of langpo. There is indeed some ekphrastic implosion, though I wonder if ekphrasis is the best way to characterize it. To me it seems more eschatological, or whatever eschatology would be if it didn’t exist. (It’s a keen strength that the book deprioritizes any thesis, allowing for this kind of joyful, highfalutin response, or this one: Bernstein’s nuts! It’s not ekphrastic, it’s clearly eschatology that’s imploding!) More than anything, the Scalapino dialectic is one of openness. The book can be ekphrastic or phenomenological, sociological or even geometrical, as the title indicates.

At this point I figure I have dabbled in the book, and it has rewarded that dabbling with (yes) a fun experience and an inkling of what is possible from this literature. A couple weeks ago I mentioned to Jamie Townsend, of the New Philadelphia Poets, that I was trying to read Scalapino and he smiled, saying something like, “That’s what everyone does.” I don’t know that one has to try, though, so much as to read her twice. Now that I have sense of the topology of her writing, I’m now going to read her a second time.

Close to the end of The Dihedrons Gazelle-Dihedrals Zoom, Scalapino unwrites her author’s note, enjambing the lines, deleting phrases and adding even more presumptuous ones, and by this time I have accustomed myself to her demands. What works best about this dilapidation, this uncutting of the stone, reminds me of what I like best about the second section of The Sound and the Fury. Faulkner forgoes chronology and structure the closer Quentin comes to death.