Saturday, January 30, 2010

the ®eal thing

I was teaching Silliman's ® this past week, which has a couple of jokey references to Book II of Paterson: "The ascent beckons, using an alarm clock"; "The dissent bickers as the assent hunkered (memory is a kind of astonishment)." I didn't think that these were the most interesting aspects of the poem. But, as usually happens with the flow of class conversation, and as an attempt to bring students into the poem gradually, I started off with the first four lines . . . again, so flat, distanciating, and jokey that I wasn't sure how interesting they would be for discussion at first:

"Touch me first.
There was a young man from Nantucket.
Poem is the practice (corner of forehead in rear view mirror).
Gonna sit right down and right myself a ladder."

Since I was asking students to "taxonomize" Silliman's sentences, lines 2 and 4 are fairly recognizable as Sillimanic punning sentences; 3 is a Sillimanic "meta" sentence commenting on process (here both a critique of "reflection"--the forehead in the mirror as the problem of mirroring, and the pleasure of confounding it--but also a hint of the theme of memory to come, with the rear-view mirror being a kind of useful instrument of the short-term capture of what's immediately past). 1 is a little bit more harder to pin, because it seems more typical of a kind of injunction to a lover (and thus a little atypical for Silliman), but when that's the reader, there's a kind of alienation effect involved (there's no way I can touch you BEFORE I read you, unless we are ascribing a touchable subjectivity to words themselves, which is probably the case.) Ah, Brechtians in love. In fact, these whole first lines seem like a love poem that is encrypted even as he pushes the reader away with the flatness of his evocations. We know what the "man in Nantucket" rhymes with. The old song about "writing oneself a letter" rather than a "ladder" is about unrequited love powering writing, courtly sentiment translated into a tin-pan-alley corn. And then it dawned on me that this connection between "ladder" and "letter" is what really turns the whole piece into a kind of commentary on Williams' discovery of the triadic line, and the optical effect that he institutes with the "descent beckons" passage. Because, just as the "descent beckons" down the page (like the flow of the falls) while "the ascent beckoned" (forcing our eye back up to make sense of what we just read, memory activating even as time pulls us forward through the poem, as a kind of conceivable levitation), one "sits right down" (again the pull of gravity downward) to write a ladder (which we usually consider a tool of upward movement, to reach high places). The whole structure of ® is ladder-like, with single sentences running down the page rather than coalescing in paragraphs, and, as with Williams' passage with the "descent beckons" the theme is renewal, in the very simple sense that each sentence seems to be written after waking, and may contain within it a recent memory of a dream. Whether one can get to that dream with the ladder/letter of language, whether that is a dream of love or some other salvation, the writing continues downward, away. But could Silliman's circle-r, instead of "registered trademark" be the kind of momentary "reversal of despair" which Williams grasps fleetingly in the lines:

"The descent
xxxxxxxxxxxxmade up of despairs
xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxand without accomplishment
realizes a new awakening :
xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxwhich is a reversal
of despair.

xxxxxxxxxFor what we cannot accomplish, what
is denied to love,
xxxxxxxxxwhat we have lost in the anticipation--
xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxa descent follows,
endless and indestructiblexxxxxxx.


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