BackYard Study, by David Carmack Lewis
Ed Pavlic’s REVEAL CODES
A Conversation that goes on for months in One Act
Ed: The author of REVEAL CODES
Dave: Editor-in-Chief, Triggerfish
Zoe: Editor, Triggerfish
J.R., Pam, Steve, Don, Greg: Triggerfish Advisory Board members
May 27, 2011
Scene: The Cloud. Participants are physically located in the United States and England.
Dave: Guys, here’s a submission from Ed and his cover letter to JR who solicited it from him–let me know what you think and thanks.
Ed: …Given Susan Howe’s connection to Beckett… I wonder if they be willing to publish my Beckettian piece from the Trial. The prose/poetic, longer piece, “REVEAL CODES. . .”. It takes off from Beckett’s “love triangle” play called, “Play.” I love the piece. Would really like that “REVEAL CODES” piece to see some light of day. . . hint : it’s a monologue about the “white” person’s terror of being seen. . . politically, philosophically (Western,) and, in this case, by a lover. . . all the way down to the pupils that constrict when they fall upon the “bright” object, etc. See what *you* think. Cheers.
Don: It’s just a huge block of text. I tried a couple sentences, but … no…
Pam: Well, the Reveal Codes poem is full of talent and brave and unusual. The dynamics interest me. I get two kinds: the first in short bursts forward followed by a pullback where there’s a denial that happens every few sentences. Reminds me of mowing the lawn with my old non-electric mower, where you push ahead but then pull it back and re-mow to cover the area twice. I smell Ginsberg, Stein & the obsessive style of Robbe-Grillet.
The second dynamic is unsatisfying (the whole-poem dynamic). The poem “deliberately” builds into horror or dread. I could see a murder happening. But then it drifts uselessly at the end. It withholds frustratingly, ya might say. In the end it strikes me as an obsessive rumination over a woman with some violent fantasies. Forcing us to read the ruminating, which isn’t always interesting, is kind of off-putting. I think the poem could get the same effect if cut in half. But there seems to be a verbose style that might be a reaction to the acute minimalism and I might just be adjusting to it. I just don’t know.
Dave: The interesting thing to me is how Pavlic puts up roadblock after roadblock before the reader’s eyes to prevent one from moving forward and actually reading–instead of revealing a code he seems to want to create one. There’s the length, the unbroken text, the insertion of periods to break up the syntax and give it an annoying telegraphic or even strobe light effect on the eyes, the repetition and fragmentation of repetition of words and phrases. It’s as though the author is hostile toward his reader and all meaning and narrative require encryption or form a test in which the reader must actively will him or herself forward through the text with little hope of reward for the trouble. I have to ask myself why the author would construct an artifact this way and the reader should work so hard, as a volunteer, to care. this reminds me of language poetry, and Stein, but with Stein she was working off a set of rules that dictated her experiments with language and syntax. Pavlic is setting up an impenetrable barrier to the reader and asking him to do work for no payoff? Maybe you can speak to this JR….I should check out the Beckett he’s working from. In the title he has code, eye, contempt and confession–I guess all of those are certainly here. Another question, should “Soctratic” be Socratic–and if it should, holy shit–a typo? Makes you wonder if this is a first draft, such that even Pavlic can’t bring himself to reread?
I admit my patience is being tried, and the question is begged, are we the audience the jury or judge for whom Pavlic is betraying contempt? I saw Mulholland Dr the other day, in which the characters exchange roles and the narrative gets tweaked and reversed in impossible and non-linear ways, but at least Lynch gave us the gorgeous Naomi Watts and Laura Elena Harring to feast our eyes on…Is this brave or unusual? These are impressions after getting halfway through…I probably need to read the whole thing, a couple of times, but damn! J.R., help. I feel like I’m being fucked with. I suppose it stretches me just to read it, and I felt similarly trying to read Stein for the first time.
Steve: Reads to me like a pretty transparent exercise (exercise because it focuses almost exclusively — and unnaturally — on a single poetic device) in Beckettian parataxis (or the feel of it mainly) introduced by something that feels more American, like a Burroughs cutup or something. It doesn’t really hit the parataxis feel for a few lines and then starts to reek excessively of Beckett. But the thing SB had in his favour was that he could pull off something like this in a few lines. This could be cooked down hugely and not give the reader the impression of some half-assed witch doctor trying desperately to hypnotise him/her and taking a goddamn age about it and then not really managing — oh but if only he keeps repeating the formula over and over in every way he can think of… In the end the reader either clucks like a stage-chicken because of not wanting to embarrass anyone, or else cries this is feckin enough and runs offstage clutching its head like a screaming Munch….
Anyway, I applaud anyone doing this Dickens/Beckett parataxis just because it’s one of my favourite techniques, but I’d had enough after about ten lines and thought he should practice a while in private before laying this vast sprawling animal on the neighbourhood. He should also maybe figure out the jumps involved. It’s not just chopping sentences up, it’s also leaving deep enough narrative holes between the clauses for extraneous imaginary forms to grow in them. So it’s about suggesting, and about the suggestion of encrypting/encoding. This reveals all its codes so many times I felt I wanted to say it’s okay I get it over and over. There’s plenty of good writing going on, and it should definitely be possible to slice this down into something powerfully suggestive, as parataxis should be. But this is just way too much. Parataxis mostly works because of what you leave out, and it’s a sort of parody of it to keep filling in everything in case the gaps confused anyone….
Dave, it *should* remind you of LangPo. Parataxis is one of their central techniques, though none of them have ever pulled it off as well as Beckett, as far as I’m aware. And Beckett picked it up largely from Dickens, if I remember right. I confess to also doing a long piece of parrot axis when I first got into it. It can be quite intoxicating. I think the trick is to remember it’s a technique and not a raison d’etre in itself.
Greg: I think when parataxis becomes a technique, and not an emotional necessity, then what’s the point.
Steve: I don’t see the two as mutually exclusive in any way at all. Writing is a technique by which we can express our emotional necessities; same with nuances of writing. We weren’t born with any of it.
Dave: Well, one option would be to publish it, and let Steve review it ripping him a new one…nah, probably not.
Greg: Well, if by technique you mean a coping mechanism that emerges unbidden during the act of suffering turmoil much like a child might emerge from between the legs of its mother, than I agree with you, emotional necessity is a literary technique, although I think it would be strange for the person involved in such a process to think of what he or she is doing as a “technique”. That assessment would come long after the fact, and at someone else’s hand.
I think technique is involved when someone else tries to figure out, in a more cool-headed fashion, how the first person did what he or she did, and instead of retracing the tracks, through the turmoil; just gloams onto the scaffolding, and tries to duplicate it. That seems like an appropriate process to call technique. It’s kind of like, you’ve got Siddhartha Gautama, and then you have buddhists. The buddhists would be relying on “techniques” to try and go where the Buddha was. But the Buddha, did he rely on “techniques” to get there? So, if you come by your parataxis honestly, as an unexpected, unbidden emotional repsonse to your own turmoil, then great….otherwise, hmmmm.
Steve: Fair enough, Greg, but you’ll never find any examples to back it up into anything but idealism, assuming you didn’t happen upon language all by yourself and you had to learn it as a set of techniques like the rest of us. Even the Buddha had to learn most of the techniques of how to be a Buddha from others. Turning things into techniques is how we codify them, remember them, understand them, pass them on. Your system presumably requires each generation or each individual to start from scratch… otherwise, hmmmmm.
J.R.: Haha! Classic Steve, you can’t back that up retort! Love/lobe it. Unfortunately I can’t find the email in which Ed laid out a particular blueprint of the poem. I can remember he said the emotion was paramount. It’s really trying to convey the fear we all go thru; the actual writing is secondary. It’s long because these fearful moments feel like they’ll last forever.
We are all influenced by and/or write for a particular author. This is highly influenced, I take it. This was one of the more difficult poems in his Trial MS for me to read, but I found it rewarding in the accurate portrayal of experience.
Greg: Well, does the poem, as an up or down thumb-type thing, have to be the point, or couldn’t the poem, and musing on it, spawn discussion? We could talk about the poem, our problems as readers, etc, without necessarily saying, well, the poem sucks, etc…Talk about our responses and let the reader decide if that means the poem sucks…maybe we suck as readers….that could be a conclusion drawn as well….
The notion that one learns language, or anything else, by first learning techniques, is problematic, and not at all self-evident. Learning is sort of mysterious…you see something, you get a sense of it, you start doing it yourself…perhaps as you get into it more you start looking for techniques to guide you, but I’m not certain that’s a good thing…and I doubt I learned language through techniques…but maybe. Do you really think Buddha learned a set of techniques? And here I don’t think I’m speaking of idealism, but rather pragmatism…idealism seems more prone to believing in techniques…techniques seem to go with Plato and his ilk, don’t you think?
Steve: Even allowing for the mysterious ways that kids ‘create’ grammar and can transform (over a couple of generations) pidgins into creoles into languages where adults cannot, and even allowing for Chomsky’s Language Acquisition Device (which I suspect is about *zeal* and urgency and identity as much as anything else), still the learning of an existent language involves imbibing the basic realities of word order and cases — grammatical technique, in other words. I see my kids iterating around the possibilities and scoring near-misses while they refine it down into the consensual thing that is English. Like it or not that involves learning all kinds of hoopla with words and reflexive concept sequences. No one can just invent all that from scratch. Call it what you want, but ‘technique’ is a common enough word used for the grammar (‘gramarye/grimoire’ — it’s mystical enough anyway if you check the origins) and the *technical* construction of a language.
I’m not suggesting we practice swings as in Tennis, but we definitely have to practice contexts over and over in order to get the extension of any grammatical principle. The fact that we do it without really realising it is neither here nor there. We are native speakers, so it’s our linguistic environment, but that just masks the reality that we are learning through repetition and practice a vast array of technical applications. You tend not to notice how miraculous all this was until you start teaching foreign students and realise just how much you know yourself and how little you know about what you know.
Assuming there’s any reality to the Buddha story, then yes, it’s highly likely that he was instructed by one or another of the numerous ascetic sects that were around at the time, as opposed to his having ignored them all and just coincidentally invented the same sort of techniques they would have taught him. Anyway, I think the thing of reducing this stuff to *technique* allows more respect for everything that came before, as opposed to assuming we can just invent poetry or art or language all by ourselves. That seems like the growing point of a plant taking credit for the whole plant. Anyway, it sort of discredits most poetry before about 1900 as everything prior to that was in one form or another and most definitely had to be learned as a set of techniques. Even real masters of that stuff weren’t reinventing sonnets every few years; they learned them from each other and passed it on. That doesn’t diminish their poetry. The more technique you learn, the more diverse your repertoire and the more tools you have for getting your stuff out.
My take on what I think you are saying is that you should learn this stuff and then forget it. None of us would speak very well if we had to do it consciously. There’s that phenomenon called ‘Beginner’s Mind’, which is just that sort of Zen absence of self despite someone being technically adept at something. Everyone wants to hit that, from climbers to martial artists to sportspeople to poets to people making love. So if, for you, that’s a place where you leave technique at the door, then fair enough. I sort of agree, but even if it’s now internalised and assimilated, and no longer discrete, it’s still in the mix doing magic stuff.
Dave: I know that there was talk in the past in previous issues about publishing a discussion…all our limitations as readers would be hanging out to dry on the line. Which would concern me less than some weird rep the journal might get that we are elitist, contrarions and full of ourselves. I’m totally for honest assessment, meaning criticism isn’t always about positives or negatives, but maybe even we took this despite its flaws because it grabbed us by the throat or crotch or whatever and wouldn’t let go…does reading Ed’s statement about REVEAL CODES change anybody’s mind?
Pam: It changes mine somewhat, because I’m interested in authorial intent and he has given us a nice quote to work with here. I guess I’m saying that now we have a context and even the start of an evaluative standard, as we can compare the poem to the quote and Beckett. Also he sez he’s dying to get it published. Heck, let’s center the issue around critical essays about the poem, and use pseudonyms or initials or “Staff”, and make your staff identities mysteries for the poetry world to wonder about.
J.R.: Pam, second! I like that idea. We could each do our critical essay of the poem. Not all of us have to like it…
Steve: Poor old Ed! Is he gonna be cool with his poem being subjected to all that mixed scrutiny in public? Well, personally I wouldn’t be happy with writing a totally negative critique of someone’s work in a public journal, so I’m not up for that. Don’t mind discussing it in forthright terms back here, but I don’t think it’s fair to do that out in front of the world unless someone has specifically requested it. I would be far more up for focusing on the positives as far ass possible and referring briefly to any perceived negatives. Anyway, seems like a crazy idea to me that it would get like eight essays or something. Is there any precedent for that or would it just look like the Triggerfish crew had inadvertently snurted some angel dust with their cornflakes?
J.R.: I don’t think he will care. I am gonna write a killer good review and I expect yours to be bad and others to freely expect their opinions honestly. That kind of deep reading is about all you can do for a poem.
Zoe: Would be really a great addition to Triggerfish if he were up for it. I like the idea of presenting it as a discussion between two people, one for and one against – a balanced discussion…
J.R.: I can email him and present it whenever.
Dave: I will make a confession–I’ve always been more interested in the poetry than the criticism. Criticism can be helpful if you’re struggling with a text, but I think you kind of have to like the text first, then seek out the explication. I might have to go back and read and reread my Randall Jarrell (because he’s such a sharp, sound, and wise critic and trod a lot of this ground already) but I see criticism — not the onanism but the good kind — as illuminating a text, positives and negatives, offering context of tradition or culture and helping a reader to appreciate the specific text through unpacking it, or to lead a reader toward a poem or book or author, or away as a counter to prevailing winds of fashion and reputation if overblown. My fear about Ed’s piece is that more people would be turning to and reading the criticism than the piece itself. You guys have offered all of this in the thread, but I think we have to make peace with the text first, don’t we? If Steve says you really should take your vitamins and here’s why, it’s still taking vitamins.
I guess what I’m saying is if someone is going to write positively, they have to be genuinely excited about it, not posturing when they really think a thing sucks, which is what you were saying before, eh, Steve? For it to be dialectic, you should be negative, and I think you have the background to be able to speak intelligently about why you feel negatively…let Pam or J.R. write the positive angle. I don’t know anything except what I said which was pretty much uninformed and gut reaction. Still we have to make peace with the text–someone here has to fucking LOVE this piece for me to to consider it going any further. I know I don’t.
Don: One of my standards as a publisher is I try not to publish stuff that’s unreadable. I still believe in reading as an experience, and that a good poem creates a reading experience. Too good to read is not my kind of good. And yeah, that means I don’t publish Finnegan’s Wake or even Ulysses.
J.R.: Dave, I fucking LOVE just about everything Ed writes including this.
Dave: All right, before we put this to bed, how about if we publish REVEAL CODES with a review by J.R. (positive), Pam (more or less positive), Steve (more or less negative), Dave (negative–basically what I said about roadblocks to readability already) and Ed Pavlic’s explanation of intent (which he may or may not want to revise)? Anyone have any strong objections, especially Zoe? Don, yours are already noted. If not then we’ll have J.R. run this by Ed, and if he’s okay with it, that’s what we’ll do…
Steve: Saw a film of this years ago with (the magnificent) Billie Whitelaw, directed by Beckett, but can’t find that version. This one seems a bit too damn keen to me, but I thought it might be interesting in relation to Ed’s poem, so everyone can see just how closely he meant it when he said it takes off from here:
I wonder how Ed’s poem would work if it was separated out into parts like this and given some air. It seems rather like undifferentiated tissue at the moment to me. Plenty of talent on view, but waiting for someone to sift it and direct the stem cells into body parts. Always find this stuff fascinatingly close to séance stuff like The Cross Correspondence.
Read ‘Play’ years ago along with all his other plays, plus saw some of them. This wasn’t recent research, just wanted to clue you all in to where the codes thing was coming from. If we are going to comment on it then it’s worth knowing that some of it is directly lifted from that Beckett play. ‘Lifted’ is the wrong word. But like Ed said, he took off from there…Fucking good on him. The more I investigate him the more I like him. He is a clever guy. Ain’t many writers schlock me with DH Lawrence and Beckett in one sitting. I wonder how many of his readers have a clue what he’s doing, because he’s sort of under the mantle of ‘provincial Beat American’. Clearly he’s far beyond that and getting freer as he goes.
J.R.: Guys, here is Ed’s response to the poems. I told him Reveal Codes would be a centerpiece of the issues of sorts and if he could shoot us a few words on the aim that’d be cool.
Ed: REVEALCODES. . . takes off from Beckett’s “love triangle” play called, “Play.” Most of the quoted “refrains” in REVEAL CODES come from Beckett’s “Play.” Some of them are lines from that play that I’ve invented. “Reveal Codes”, maybe obviously, comes from an old word processing command (don’t know if it still exists. . .) by which all the normally invisible codes that format a piece of writing (tabs, section breaks, italics, etc.) become visible on the screen.
The poem is a political monologue about a “white” person’s terror of being seen. I think “whiteness” as a social and personal (and legal) category stems from , among other things, the effort to create a situation where people can see but not be seen. It’s an illusion. Vision is reciprocal, I think. One can’t see anyone clearly if they can’t “see you back.”
The consciousness of “how one is seen” is, in fact, a crucial facet of self-consciousness. Whiteness is, I think, among other things, an effort to avoid that facet of self-consciousness. A kind of corruption of Descartes, “I think I am how I think I am.” Or is that Seuss? Anyway, in REVEAL CODES, our speaker is now intensely aware of being seen politically, philosophically, and, in this case, by a lover. It’s a close up of how his awareness of being seen alters what he sees, all the way down to the lover’s pupils that constrict when they fall upon the “bright” object, etc.
Pam: Fascinating. I will try not to riff too much on the Male Gaze thing in Reveal Codes, if it’s supposed to be about being white rather than male, though I have to note it cuz it’s huge in the poem. I don’t think vision is at all reciprocal where white/non-white male/female is involved. I need to know if Ed is gay before I riff on the hetero stuff though. REVEAL CODES turns out to be a nice tight little metaphor.
Great job getting Ed Pavlic in, J.R.! I note that Pavlic is apparently African-American. So the riff on whiteness gets a lot more central. My friend Harry Berger is a literary/art critic who never goes outside the text. He doesn’t want to know anything about the author. I guess I’m a little more on the psychoanalytic side, old-fashioned in wanting to prize out the truth even the poet may not see. That requires knowing the poet as well as the poem.
J.R.: Pam, he’s married with three kids…so I have no idea. I was surprised he agreed to this. We have a history of talking out his stuff and I am scouring the Net for new work, but ya know, dude runs the MFA program for Georgia. Whatever that’s worth.
Don: WordPerfect had “reveal codes.” Alt-F5, as I recall. You won’t see that in a Microsoft product. Still can’t read the poem, though.
Steve: Similarly… As Sam Johnson said, “If the Public don’t like it, it will do no damn good to tell them why they should.”
Dave: Speaking of which, Zoe was thinking maybe the writeup would be most interesting if you guys were to hold a conversation about it, kind of like a brief interview–or interview as the format for the criticism.
J.R.: Dave, I am up for it. Who the fuck writes for the public? Sam Johnson outlived his usefulness when Ginsberg was born. I’d like to include a little history on how I ended up reading Ed’s work. It was a weird experience…
[An Irrelevant Quarrel Takes Place. EXIT J.R.]
[J.R., As It Later Turns Out, Does not Return}
Zoe: I believe the plan / hope is still that Steve, Pam and JR will all write a piece. It doesn’t have to be a big downer, something balanced, if you feel it.
Don: Better yet you should disagree and argue with each other. Point Counterpoint. Jane, you ignorant slut!
Steve: There are such things in reality as design classics. Among these I would include Estwing hammers and snowballs and Volkswagens. Everyone might not like them but they are definitely things that caught on and became popular for their basic ability to swing and drive.
Not included in the classics list is the vast unbroken block of text. Burroughs experimented with it and surrendered. He gave up and went back to an earlier design. Many of us have played around with the big block, and then gone back and got real about it.
Here is such a huge tank of text. It purports to be something to do with Samuel Beckett. But Beckett learned to slice it up. Dickens oh I mean Rabelais really gave us the first parts of the dissection. It’s great. It works. It is a powerhouse technique if it accepts its parameters. Like anything else it needs limits and care.
This is unlike anything I’ve read by Ed Pavlic before. Usually he seems to care about how he sends his messages. On this occasion perhaps he doesn’t and thinks we should all have to drown in his experiment. Beckett frequented this place and we call that parataxis. It is the basic bust-up of the linguistic relationship. Your cat and dog learn to fly in disagreement. a sort of loaf. half-baked what. were there others? a car that caught fire. the camels were our problem. no head anyway! death, not again! your mother? a huge animal that crept in. your head off again? oh such sex such wings! etc?
REVEAL CODES takes off from a Beckett play. But does that make it okay for it to shuffle its overgrown self into the car like this and not get with some basic rules of engagement? Well, no, not really. You can’t, just can’t, imagine that there is no issue about sending out a great tract of text and not saying anything about it. It’s a bit weird and mad. It’s like you came round and poured your coffee all over the carpet or something. It’s just a thing that no one would really do. And for good reasons. It’s a weird place that everyone went to and then came back from. Most of them at least bothered to mention it.
This is a good poem just because Ed Pavlic is a good poet. But this might be the worst way he has ever proved it. There are wonderful lines in this poem, but they have to fight hard to be read through the huge heft.
We use line breaks and language-oxygen because they let us breathe and photosynthesize. I like this, almost, because Ed is a cool poet, but he almost suffocated me here. I doubt he’ll be using this big-block technique in two years. It will be a little diversion. It will be a Billie Whitelaw moment of head-down chaos on the beach. I’m sort of glad we went here, but I wouldn’t want to do it regularly.
Steve: Oh that was my contribution, by the way.
Don: Way to throw down the gauntlet, Steve.
Pam: Steve, please, speak of ponds, of hands reaching from them. You seem to feel defeated by the scintillating pond that is the text. Did Beckett really abandon the block technique? If he did, is Pavlic extending the technique in a fruitful way?
This text contains 2473 words including the title. The average short story is about 3000 words. This is a very long text for a single block of words, as you point out. It’s the first thing we notice, this uncompromising refusal to make the text easily readable. Why is the author so unyielding, harsh even, as to deprive us of our lines, our stanzas (though he does give us very short “bytes” of sentences)? Why this perseveration around such an uncertain meaning?
There are two characters, the Subject (a man, I think we can presume) and an Object, a woman. The woman rejects the man, perhaps because she is White and he is Black (I guess this from the author’s statement). I find myself questioning this expressed theme of the author from the outset, because from the evidence of the text it seems just as likely that the rejection occurs on a strictly man-woman basis. In fact, as I begin finding my way in the dense unreliable details, my interest turns fairly quickly to the man-woman rejection theme. This is partly because the text is so very unreliable, I feel invited to overlay my own preoccupations.
In visual/semantic style, the text is cubist in the style of Picasso and Gris, as follows: the colors are muted and calibrated so the form can be clearly seen. The “colors” are motifs: the eyes, the torso, the cello, the whiteness and darkness. One should not pay too much attention to them; they are only bland building-blocks.
Robbe-Grillet seems to me to be deeply influential here. This reminds me especially of his script for Last Year at Marienbad. There is no U.S. Beat influence here as I initially thought, I was just noticing the rhythm and repetition when I started talking about Ginsberg. Forget Ginsberg, this is the thirties (and after) European avant-garde redux. And I’m happy to revisit this period, as it still holds many unexplored continents. American poets have seemed to me to ignore the dadaists and surrealists.
Unfortunately I know little of Beckett. A Malloy paperback from the forties put me to sleep with its tiny print on yellowed torn pages. I conclude that being entertaining is not Beckett’s primary objective. I find this text more interesting than what I have read of Beckett, though it can get tiresome as with any insistently pure stylistic work. What keeps it interesting is the ancient erotic dynamic of approach and rejection.
The author states that much of the text is taken in a flarf-like fashion from a play of Beckett’s. I feel no need to consider this as a comment on that play. A good flarf uses the text of others to make entirely new statements with little reference to the overall meaning of the originating document. Nothing in the text require me to worry about Beckett.
I do have a good knowledge of two small human Beckett-aspects that somehow, to me, influence the text, though. Beckett as a young man was James Joyce’s secretary. With Joyce a mentor, indirectly, of this author, I have an entree. I can say that as in Joyce I find insistent verbiosity, experimentation, motifs, an erotic underpinning, as in Ulysses. I could go further and look for stylistic experiments in one or more chapters of Finnegan’s wake.
The other thing that comes to mind about Beckett as I read Pavlic’s text is that Beckett rejected the love of Lucia Joyce, James’ beautiful daughter. Lucia ended in a madhouse, and I have always thought Beckett, with his cold and forbiddingly cognitive communicative style, could have let her down more easily. And so I ask, is this text cold and unforbidding? In a way, yes. There is defensiveness here. There is almost an expectation of lack of success.
In twisting, almost writhing, through the text with the author, one feels that the author is looking for a way to change the situation, to be successful in the end. Perhaps on a train, if not the car. Perhaps near a pond. She appears to be swimming, and her hand appears, then her eyes, then her torso. Perhaps the truth is that he turns away, never engaging her, and writes this text. Perhaps there is self-anger at not having the courage to engage her.
The dynamic is just like the way Gertrude Stein moves the text forward in one of her styles: a jerky forward movement, then pull back, then a little more forward, then pull back. The “Insertion/retraction” motif here is an obvious heterosexual parallel. The narrator inserts himself into the woman’s presence, then withdraws; or at times this dynamic is frankly sexual; or the woman acknowledges him, but then he becomes invisible and any interaction between them turns fantasy.
That’s how I see this in the end, as an accidental rendezvous that occurs, but does not develop into anything. There is an insupportable stoppage. I believe the woman decides not to bring the narrator toward her. The narrator sees it in her eyes, an equivalence of darkness with Blackness. I’m not so sure. Who really brings the darkness to the meeting? Who re-examines the event, makes of it a broader theme of race or sex? Perhaps this is a faithful record of Pavlic’s analysis of an unknowable (to the reader) event and its fantasized alternatives, an accountant’s book of exact and exacting figures, which finally arrives at a zero balance and can be filed, at last, harmlessly away.
Steve: It’s not Cubist. Cubism has features and lines and textures and squiggles and dimensions. Effectively it has the equivalents of structural drama and line breaks. This is only Cubist if Cubism is literally the painting of cubes. We all know very well that it isn’t.
Anyway, if I say I think one delivery technique doesn’t work as well as another, does that mean I ‘seem to feel defeated’? Haha, how absurd! I think email works rather better than mail coaches. Does this seriously suggest I feel *defeated* by the prospect of horses delivering dispatches? I can live with either, but one has taken over the world for the basic pragmatic reason that it is more effective and reliable.
The only defeat here is a tacit surrender of this form of delivery, and hopefully an implicit understanding that this sort of presentation will not have offspring. It is barren. Though its content be ever so lush and genetically colourful it will never make it to the higher places of the fallopia. It is one of those two-headed tadpoles that can only kick lamely in circles as it gets asphyxiated by chemical death in the shallows of the cervix while its few functional brothers thrust madly onward just because they can and this can’t. This pond will never be swum in by this fish.
Pam: Steve, you do say that we’re not getting enough oxygen, i.e., drowning, and that the text almost suffocates you. Maybe I shouldn’t call that being “defeated” by what you call the delivery technique, but the technique makes you uncomfortable, doesn’t give you enough breathing room. I agree, it doesn’t, but I think it might be justifiable here.
Maybe the airlessness in the delivery is justified by the claustrophobic recursive thinking that’s going on. Somebody once told me what was keeping me up at night was “compulsive rumination”. Seems like what this is, and it’s pretty circular. It’s like a pond itself, with a hand reaching out. Or at least it’s twisty more than linear. Maybe we’re not just reading the narrator’s work, maybe we’re also being forced to experience it in our lungs since we’re never allowed to get a breath. Maybe we should applaud this unity of meaning and delivery. It’s risky, though. The length is already a challenge. We’re already in pain. We may just quit reading.
As for cubism, I suppose that’s not quite right. I’m just trying to say that with Picasso and Gris in their cubist phases, there seems to be a muting of colors in favor of an emphasis on form. In Ed’s poem, there’s an emphasis on some bigger form that emerges from all this tiny ruminating, and the fragments or meaning-bytes are kept fairly uniform and non-flashy in their affect. With a poem in lines and stanzas the overall form isn’t quite as organic. It’s full of breaches, right? All for our reading comfort. Well, Ed Pavlic is not interested in our comfort, any more than Beckett.
Steve: Pam, you were more dismissive of this poem before you got the back story of what Ed thought he was trying to do with it. Most of us were.
If a poem uses a format and size that puts off most of a panel of rather serious and practiced readers before they even begin to feel sympathetic or interested, then I think the poem has defeated itself. I am into rock climbing, as you know; if I look up a route on a crag and think it just doesn’t look worth bothering with, that route has not defeated me: I have just decided not to waste my time on it. This poem is not quite that, because I can see intriguing features along it that I see would be challenging and fun to climb. It’s just that there are too few of them on such a long and dense route, and I don’t rate it as ultimately worth my effort.
Climbers use the word ‘thrutch’ to describe an awkward climb where you just have to force yourself to keep going and just get to the end of it. I think this poem, despite the Beckett (two times ‘t’) takeoff, is something of a thrutch. And all but one of us did before we got informed of how we should be trying to see it. Most readers will not get access to the instructions, so will just have to try to swallow what is a long, long mouthful of something they find unappetizing. But they won’t be the ones who are defeated.
If a poet wants his/her poems to be read, then writing one that the readers won’t read is a defeat of the poem and the poet. Even if we narrow that down to a particular poetry demographic section of appropriate readers, we don’t want to get so exclusive that we are in the realms of masturbatory fantasy cults. That’s delusional: we want to be in that healthy section of a significant number of non-specific readers, not just, for instance, people who read anything to do with Beckett or people who slightly perversely applaud anything awkward and maverick. Neither of those are targeted at you or anyone here, by the way.
And the idea that a poem with strophes and line-breaks is less organic is incorrect. We have been trying forever to make our poetry organic by approximating what is organic human delivery in speech or sex. If someone sitting with you across a table in a restaurant tried this trick and didn’t stop or pause or take breath or otherwise allow rests or emphases for ten minutes you (or most of us anyway) would probably have considered that it might be more pleasant to run outside without your coat and jump in front of a bus without waiting for the denouement.
If Ed’s not interested in our comfort, how come he usually is? It’s not like Ed’s just some totally uncompromising poet who doesn’t care. He uses all the same comforting devices the rest of us do, usually. Why isn’t he doing so here? Is it because he thinks Beckett is uncompromising and sometimes unreadable? He is unreadable by most readers, as is Joyce. Is that really what’s happening here, that Ed got off on a play and thought wow I wanna go here to this dense place too I want some of this… It looks like it.
Has he pulled it off? Has he got to the Beckett place and assumed his mantle? This isn’t just something inspired by Beckett, it is Beckett. It’s fabric is directly appropriated from Beckett. It’s an attempt at a reincarnation. So why then ignore the stuff that Beckett found to be necessary to enable even serious readers to get through the reading?
It’s a mistake, and this poem will not become what that Beckett play is. It’s an experiment and a diversion from what Ed knows really works. If he doesn’t care it is only because it doesn’t really matter. He wouldn’t risk his life on the readability of a thrutch like this.
And don’t forget when you first read this poem and I had pointed out that it was a Beckett thing you said it *wasn’t* Beckett but was pure Beat. That was how you first read it. See where you went without the stage directions? Perhaps the poem defeated you. Maybe it defeated all but his most fervent fans. But that’s only as good as your granny thinking you’re cool ;0)
Pam: OK, we seem to agree that the poem presents a forbidding, even ogreish, if imposing, facade. (Or to keep up the climbing metaphor, it’s Eiger North Face). It doesn’t give itself up easily. It’s experimental.
All of us have tried out formats and fractures, and denied people easy meanings too, in some of our work. Poetry as an art moves forward by making difficult advances. You don’t think this “advance” goes anywhere, but I’m still intrigued at a couple of things.
In the first place, I have tried breaking the poem up; yep, I have gone through the poem and tried to conventionalize it. If I had been able to “break” the poem, I would call the format a failure. It doesn’t break. It’s like water, there’s nowhere to stop the flow. The fragments are moving forward too evenly and slowly and subtly to catch a breath, I think. There’s not even a part one and part two. There’s nothing but this relentless edging two steps forward, one step back. I go back to Robbe-Grillet, who was similarly frustrating but also rewarding in other ways. Is this poem rewarding in other ways?
In the second place, the main title, REVEAL CODES, does give fair warning. If one blogs on Blogger, for instance, while in the process of posting a poem, one can choose to view the poem in “compose” or “html” mode, as you know. “Compose” looks conventional. “Html” is a borderless unbroken block. Even the stanza breaks are filled in as “
Ed explains the digital influence by saying “…all the normally invisible codes that format a piece of writing (tabs, section breaks, italics, etc.) become visible on the screen.” I’d (tentatively) interpret this as referring to the sentence fragments. If these repetitive bits are the normally invisible codes, then we are seeing here something that is not yet “a piece of writing”; it’s pre-writing, the unconscious receiving incoherent impressions and working with them. We the readers are struggling along with the author, trying to figure out what’s really going on out there.
So what is Ed’s stated intention, to the extent he is the director of this play of unreliable details? What does he want this block to resolve into? He says that “the poem is a political monologue about a “white” person’s terror of being seen. I think “whiteness” as a social and personal (and legal) category stems from , among other things, the effort to create a situation where people can see but not be seen. It’s an illusion. Vision is reciprocal, I think. One can’t see anyone clearly if they can’t ‘see you back.’ The consciousness of ‘how one is seen’ is, in fact, a crucial facet of self-consciousness. Whiteness is, I think, among other things, an effort to avoid that facet of self-consciousness.”
I almost feel frightened trying to evaluate how this “intention” is expressed in the text. This is a challenging theme in addition to the challenging format. I’m already ready to kick back and have a glass of wine. Maybe I’ll do that anyway as I re-read the poem for meaning.
Greg: None of my business, but this never stopped me before…I’m tempted to say that the test of a good poem is how its power is affected by explication. A good poem, I would like to say, is weakened by explication. A bad poem is strengthened. If a poem requires huge amounts of theoretical and/or historical baggage to be attached to it to warrant a read, then I’m inclined to say the author hasn’t fully realized the poem and left it to us to help. Of course maybe that’s what we require of authors now, that they leave us some of the field so that the cultural work can be a joint affair.
But I’m unhappy with a poem or anything else that requires an explanation from the author about intent etc., except of course in the workshop environment, where it can be very illuminating to hear the author discourse on intent, methodology, etc. It’s now possible to include the workshop environment in a publication, which is what Pam seems to be suggesting when she offers the possibility of publishing the poem with this extended comment thread. This challenges the notion of poem, which of course is fine. This is perhaps the new paradigm, and why not? What am I saying?
Pam: Greg, you say that having to refer to author intent to work with a poem usually means it’s not a good poem. I’d just like to say that it’s me, really, who keeps insisting on looking at what the author intended to do. Others may want to use New Criticism and only look within the walls of the poem, or use another analytic technique. I choose to look at what the poet has “explicated”, but the poem may not require that explication, it’s just my way of finding evaluative standards. One of my standards, especially with experimental work, which may have premises and project goals I am not aware of, is to ask whether the poet’s own standards have been met. I think it lets me get deeper into the poem, faster, but that’s just one approach.
Ed says that the poem is a political monologue about a white person’s terror of being seen. Reading “blind”, I think I might have missed that the poem has political meaning or that the “Black gaze” motif is the paramount motif here. That’s a bad omen, maybe, but at least I can go back and look around some more and focus on that to see what jewels I may find. Maybe the jewels are there, just a little too-well-hidden, which might make the poem a “good” poem anyway, or maybe they’re not there, which means to me that the poem is not good. I think we agree that the main question is, “What has the poet produced here?” That may well include unintended production. I already think it does, in fact. I think it’s a highly emotional and personal poem, and that was not intended.
Greg: Well, yikes (calm insertion) I just read the whole thing. Though long, it wasn’t hard to read, but of course I can’t bring it into unity.
I get sex, someone having sex, I get contrasts of dark and light, that the darkness, the black is a thing and it makes the white known, maybe. I get the quantum, something about speed versus time, etc., thus the Newton and Kepler but no mention of Einstein’s train thought experiment which I think explains the train that crops up somewhere in all this, and the uncertainty of location and fixed point navigation in a world constantly in motion, the difficulty one has orienting oneself.
I have no thoughts on the eyes. Must mean something, but so far not to me. I didn’t get any white thing really…I don’t know what that could be referring to, and I don’t know and haven’t sought out the Beckett he says this takes off from, so maybe that would help. I think somewhere back months ago Steve said he was familiar with the Beckett and it did help?
You know, you ask an author about the eyes, for instance, and they might say something like: Oh, that was inspired by this painting by etc. etc. that has a bunch of eyes in it, or they might say I was looking at this striated ball and saw a bunch of my own eyes come and go, etc., so, would that be helpful to know?
I played around with the idea that the woman was dead and floating in the pond, that there’d been some sort of accident which he’d happened upon, but that didn’t help much. I don’t know, I have some stray thoughts, some associations he sparked, etc, but nothing unified.
I sense there are ideas here about how to craft something, given the rhythm, the way things repeatedly crop up, and that he’s working from some emotional base or another, but he also seems intent on obscuring the base. Either he’s afraid it would be too prosaic to be interesting, or he feels it’s a Pollock thing, where the form buried under a plane of drips will exert itself on the subconscious, in which case I’ll get back to you after I sleep on it, or he has something else or nothing in mind.
That’s the problem these days. You never know if someone has really worked something, thought it out, shaped and reshaped it until it’s just what it needs to be, or if they’re just screwing around with no real idea what they’re about. Nothing he’s said so far about what he’s doing tips it one way or the other for me, and how much time to I want to put in to something that may never have gone any where?
My point on author intent isn’t a unified stance either. If the author’s intent can follow the poem around as it travels through the world, and all readers will have equal access to it, then that’s one thing. Classically author intent couldn’t follow the poem, so those few in the know got one thing and the rest, left out of the loop, got another. It’s hard enough editing a journal or publication without trying to juggle a decision on a poem that one has special knowledge of that others won’t have.
My thoughts on the diminishment of the poem when given author intent come from my experience with Wallace Stevens, perhaps not a favorite of yours. I loved his poetry and felt something was going on that I didn’t have access to. So I searched out criticism on his work and read his letters.
None of that made me enjoy the poems more. The poems, in fact, were then forced to share their auras with the critical writing and the letters, and thus seemed a bit diminished, much to my regret. With a poem like REVEAL CODES, I guess it doesn’t much matter. I’m somewhat interested in it but not riveted. I’d like to know how it works, if, in fact it does work, but I’m not certain I want to put much effort into figuring it out.
I think it might have legs as a theater piece… he’s played around a bit with stage directions… but if I were directing it I’d have no overriding vision I’d be working from. I could read it a few more times, I suppose. I’m kind of left not minding this, but not enthusiastic about it either.
Dave: I’m reading everything. I would be inclined to not do the discussion format on this piece, I think, but I’m not 100 percent convinced about that. Mainly it’s that I don’t want to duplicate in critique what Ed has offered in poem format, if that makes any sense. I guess I question how many people besides us is going to read REVEAL CODES. More might read a sentence or two and then skip to the criticism, and then go holy shit when they see it goes on quite a while then click away. I don’t want to see this happen.
On the other hand we could be stubborn about it and just put our stuff out there and say whatever — it’s only cyberspace. These are some initial thoughts about it, but I can’t say my mind is made up or I couldn’t be persuaded differently or just change my mind — still haven’t heard from JR. um, in the meantime rave on.
Pam: Dave, if you really think most readers won’t read more than a sentence of REVEAL CODES, then why are you publishing it? And why ask verbose poets to comment on it, if you want to keep the comments section short because of the length of the poem? It seems to me that the poem is so difficult and huge, there’s no way to give it a good comment without a lot of length.
Steve: As the proposal here is some variant of Reality TV, let’s all do some ketamine and start the discussion again with all our positions reversed in a mass out-of-body experience…
Dave: …It would help if someone was really sold on this and told me, hey, this is today’s Tender Buttons.
Pam: My own problem right now is connected with Greg’s statement that Ed seems to be intentionally “obscuring the base”. Now, a lot of us do that, and the argument is made also that we shouldn’t care, necessarily, what the base is, only about what grows and is pinched off from it as a work of art. Greg, you point out that the base may be pretty trivial, actually.
But Greg, you got nowhere with the poem and were left indifferent. The poem doesn’t open up on its own, does it, yet it’s not just an experiment in abstract writing either. I think what we’re asking is whether the poem fails because it needs a meaning, and we can’t find anything from within the four corners of the poem, or even by resort to the author’s statement regarding the poem’s meaning; in fact, some of us may suspect that the poet’s statement is also intentionally unreliable.
My problem is that I’m developing a private theory as to the “base” of the poem which I could develop to show the poem is about something important, and that it does work with the theme… but I feel my theory would require me to look even further away from the poem, into the author’s real life, to actually research him to see if my suspicions are true. It feels like going too far to do this, and the theme, if it does exist, is kind of sensitive, so I am having a problem going there.
Greg: I was thinking about this the other day. I think this poem could open up if I worked on it, and by that I mean did actual homework, plotted out various aspects, thought about the meta-aspects, did some additional research. Sort of like my wife does crossword puzzles and my mom does Sudukus.
Generally I favor poetry that I don’t have to work for, but perhaps some folk really enjoy working for their enjoyment. It’s a different way of reading. The poem does almost nothing for me when I’m reading it, but I have been thinking about it since I read it. I was reading something from Jung today, and it struck a chord with something in the poem…aspects of dark and light Jung was talking about that Ed seemed to be talking about also.
So, while I got little from my initial read, the poem has stuck with me, has insinuated itself, and now, if I had the time, I’d go back and look at it further. As for your thoughts on the base, Pam… I think if you can connect some sort of narrative to this that illuminates and holds with some level of consistency, then whether or not there’s something in the author’s background might be irrelevant. But maybe not. Perhaps autobiography is a key component of his thrust here. Hmmm.
I’ve also been ruminating on the reveal aspect of this. What has been revealed? Revealing codes give you the ability to see how something has been formated, or to see the formatting code. What has been revealed here, that would normally be hidden, in that sort of way? There must be something. Is “Calm insertion” and some of the other things he throws in here the code that has been revealed? What does calm insertion do, and what does it do it to?
Steve: BTW, regarding the influence of code a bunch of emails ago: I don’t really distinguish between that kind of code and this kind. The spaces in texts are commands to the processor; they are not nothings. Inserting no strophic (turning) spaces means the omission of one style of command protocols, but it doesn’t necessarily mean a higher attack frequency. It just means more repetition of another set of commands and lower peaks and shallower troughs as nothing gets the chance to draw breath and build momentum. That makes it all head and no sex.
Pam: Haha! what you say is beyond me, Steve. however, it inspires me to think again of the
Now if the field-painting method means everything is dissipated and nowhere in the painting, so there no buildup of momentum, then that explains the deep satisfaction of old-fashioned portraits, how they build from the neck into a central explosion of consciousness, doesn’t it? Then isn’t the head the phallic symbol? Isn’t the head the sex, in short? Somebody else has certainly written about this. Can this discussion be incorporated into the REVEAL CODEs discussion? Are we still in that discussion, or elsewhere?
Steve: I dunno — a head has a big mouth in the front which ain’t very phallic, and sorta lozengey eyeholes and stuff. It’s too perforated to be really phallic, more hybrid or alien or something. Anyway, for that to be the sexplace it needs cables running down to the antennae and if they’re not there then there’s just no signal. Those gaps and spaces in poetry are where the cables run underground to the receivers. If they don’t do that underground discretion and mystery it’s like someone coming on straight from the genital centre without even a show of interest in your identity, which turns most people off. You are in bed with a damaged robot that just wants to jerk through its last moments as the servos expire. You are just a thing to plug into.
How can we be in ‘that discussion’? We’re in this one aren’t we? Yes, fair enough in realities like mathematics and Hinduism everything may really be located everywhere and nowhere, but humans tend to need the appearance of position in order to achieve congress with something outside. I suppose it depends what thinks it’s talking to what or if anything does. If not, then what are we bothering to do this for? No use appealing to notions of non-locality and then sending emails in English which refer to earlier emails. That’s having yer cake and not having it. All I am saying is it comes on without courtesy or romance and I feel all cheap and used by its ceaseless iterations in my ear.
Pam: Yeouch! Sounds like a deep crit of REVEAL CODES as well as this conversation! “Ceaseless iterations”…yes. You say the poem (as well as this conversation) doesn’t offer us a stance, really, we have to float around in it, no foothold, and dare I say, there is some arrogance, some extraordinary sense of entitlement, in this insistent non-provision for the reader (by all of us)? It sounds like you are saying the poet is just using us. There’s no acknowledgment of our presence, no room for us, all is devoted to the poet’s expression. And we are influenced; we are aping the poet’s disdain for the reader. You find something inhuman, cheap, in all this.
[A Video of an Aged Henry Miller in His Big Sur Bathroom Begins Popping Up With Each Message]
[An Irrelevant Discussion of the Word “Porndog” Takes Place]
Pam: I felt (no matter what happens with the poem) that I should react specifically to Ed’s statement that the poem’s main theme is white and black looking at each other (or that’s what I gleaned from the statement). It’s inextricably intertwined with the other musings in that sinuous way, but I do find that theme, and I do feel that it is fully and subtly expressed.
Here’s a short arbitrary sampling of theme phrases, which includes the ending because I think endings are the most revealing part of a poem: “Whiteness holds the darkness & the darkness moves toward me & the darkness at the center of whiteness holds the blackness. The otherwise unavailable, hitherto unalterable, bottom of blackness…I’ve seen eyes look away…The darkness turns from a twist of whiteness & looks away into blackness. …At night, eyes float & the hands at the bottom of a silent white wave & ‘Am I as much as being seen?'”
As I read through the poem one more time, I see how many times “see” is part of this. What kind of seeing is occurring during this encounter which appears to build up to an act of lovemaking? It has to do with “whiteness” and “blackness”. She the white, he the black. The whiteness and the blackness are separate independent qualities that react strongly with each other. White sometimes accepts black, sometimes avoids black. Will one quality reject the other? Seeing is the connection between the two qualities, where the action of attraction and repulsion occurs. Are the two qualities so overwhelmingly important in the encounter that they will decide its success? The narrator, the “he”, is watching the two qualities watch each other. He seems helpless to influence what is going on. The two human bodies and individualities are not as important.
Late in the poem, the sexual encounter between the humans does occur and it seems that it is because there is sufficient acceptance between the white and the black, but the narrator is left to wonder: “…am I as much being seen?” Have the other qualities of the human beings become so insignificant due to the whiteness/blackness issue that the narrator doesn’t feel sure she would even know him as an individual if she saw him again?
I think the key sentence in the whole poem is this: “Whiteness holds the darkness & the darkness moves toward me & the darkness at the center of whiteness holds the blackness.” I can imagine a man seeing a darkness in the eyes of a woman, which seems to travel toward him. The issue of “blackness” comes with it and complicates and convolutes and insinuates itself throughout the encounter. I think you could say that archetypes overtake this couple and this experience. When the experience is over, the man feels cheated, I think, unfulfilled.
Steve: …REVEAL CODES is the best thing we have, despite all my reservations about its delivery.
[Several Board Members Resign, but Return]
[A Member Announces that He is Having a Sex-Change Operation]
Pam: That’s good, we need more women on the board.
Steve: Why? Is there some baking to do?
[Extended Irrelevant Discussion]
Steve: There’s a category dissonance between mine and Pam’s stuff here. I complain that Ed’s poem is inaccessible because of its form, and that therefore I can’t consider its content, and Pam replies in critiques of the content. To make this sensible I will have to talk about the content, to which, by my own analysis, I am *denied* access by the form. Or else, where Pam addresses my critique, her critique should answer mine and focus on my objections. Should I ignore my premise and get further in, or should Pam retreat to the shallows to experience again their cold play?
[Discussion Regarding What a Codex is]
[Discussion of a Certain Sex Scene in a Popular Novel]
Pam: Since I prepared this I cannot be prevented from adding that I was wrong about REVEAL CODES at the start and am only beginning to understand and appreciate the depth and scope of this poem, with its hidden themes of race, colonizing, fear, revulsion, power, and sex. I think we should start all over.
[The Conversation Continues Interminably]
August 21, 2011