JAMES SANDERS Reviews
Alkali by Craig Dworkin
(Counterpath Press, Denver, 2015)
On the back cover of Alkali, deep in the blurb, is a claim that the book “seeks to evade the already-clichéd styles and tones that have come to characterize the rhetoric of our present day Conceptualism.” I was struck by the statement, which I didn’t discover until after reading the book. I am aware of Dworkin’s involvement with Conceptual writing as a scholar, as an editor and as an author of poetry books like Parse. The phrasing of the critique in the blurb is curious, aimed as it is at the “styles and tones” of the “rhetoric” of Conceptualism— not at Conceptualism, or even its rhetoric, but it’s rhetoric’s styles and tones. It’s hard to take any blurb on the back cover of a poetry book too seriously, but the more I thought about Alkali’s orientation to Conceptualism’s platforms (if not its practice), the more my reading of the poems was rewarded.
Before going further with that line of thought, Alkali is first an enjoyable book of poetry. The book contains six poems that vary in length and layout. Dworkin demonstrates he has a great ear, and the book is fun to read aloud. It contains beautiful evocations of landscape, and it sends you in all different directions referentially, from geology to French philosophy.
In his introduction to the Conceptual writing anthology, Against Expression, Dworkin describes the Conceptualist poetics exhibited by the works in that book:
With minimal intervention, the writers here are more likely to determine preestablished rules and parameters—to set up a system and step back as it runs its course—than to heavily edit or masterfully polish. Indeed, the exhaustive and obsessive nature of many of these projects can be traced back to an unwillingness to intercede too forcefully; to use the entirety of a data set, or to rehearse every possible permutation of a given system, is to make just one choice that obviates a whole host of other choices. The one decision removes the temptation to tinker or edit or hone. Frequently, we had to admit that works we admired were not quite right for this collection because they were simply too creative—they had too much authorial intervention, however masterful or stylish that intervention might be.[i]
A binary is established here: Conceptualist vs. “interventionist.”[ii] The Conceptualist author is the inventor, discoverer, composer; the interventionist author is the tinkerer, craftsperson, player. The binary extends without much imagination into a familiar dualism: Conceptual writing as the mind, and interventionist writing as the body. This binary can also be mapped onto a textual political economy, with interventionism playing the part of the centrally-planned economy, and conceptualism laissez faire. However, pieces in Alkali disturb this binary and reinforce the argument that Dworkin’s poetics is potentially more complex than his rhetoric in the anthology’s introduction.
I say reinforced, because the poetics of Alkali are consistent with Dworkin’s practice in other of his works. Paul Stephens in his article “From Self-Portrait in a Context Mirror: Pain and Quotation in the Conceptual Writing of Craig Dworkin” effectively argues that though Dworkin advocates a poetics of intellect, his writing (especially his long poem Dure) actually evidences a poetics of the “return to expressive autobiography.”[iii] I’ll return to some of Stephens’ points which echo in Alkali, but Stephens is right that Dworkin engages with expressivity, even if he doesn’t embrace it. Although Dworkin employs compositional constraints, the complexity of his work arises in how he plays with them and the resulting by-products. Much of work of Conceptual writing in the “set up a system and just get out of the way” mold is marked by a homogeneous surface (a textual product). This sort of Conceptual writing, exemplified by the transcriptional/translational Conceptualism that occupies much of the current limelight, tends to produce an unblemished whole (or at least one without any noticeable blemishes) because the system that is set up is univocal and impermeable. It is the textual invisible hand. By contrast, in Alkali the “system” of composition bears the marks of its own process via authorial intervention in the form of anomaly, mistake, and other compositional happenstance, which not only are noticeable fissures in the text, but often are important to the poems themselves; the poems are works of description marked by seams, breaks and explorations of the referential distance between the act of writing and its subject matter.
For example, the poem “All Saints” works primarily because of an internal anomaly. “All Saints” is a short poem, so I’ve reproduced it below (there is a page break between the two stanzas in the book).
Ored arches ern—
inky rivers out
ranged even over
agen riven rove-
ringed axes — randed
ewers raining ash,
raked eye ruts uttering reams.
Eves addle ere
our ender annum
ages airs rung
under riper eaves.
The work bears the hallmarks of constraint-based writing, even if one can’t reverse engineer an overarching system that would fit Dworkin’s “hands-off” definition from the passage above. All of the words in the poem either begin with an “r” or with a vowel. The first stanza describes a rugged landscape with geologic activity whose eruptions damage the speaker’s eye and spark the act of writing. In the second stanza the scene shifts to the interior at night, with a contemplation of the passage of time and ultimately death (“our ender annum”). All of the lines in the poem have three words, but the last line of the first stanza has five. At this stanza break, then, the poem itself breaks, with an anomalous, syllabically-overstuffed line coinciding with the very point where the subject describes the act of nature that stimulates the act of writing: “raked eye ruts uttering reams.”
The poem bears a comparison to Hölderlin’s “Hälfte des Lebens” (“Half of life)”[iv] another two stanza poem (at about the same size— only two lines longer) that also concerns the passing of life. Hölderlin’s poem drapes lyrical subjectivity onto adopted Greek metrical forms and a two stanza frame; a lush landscape in the first stanza is broken at the beginning of the second with the speaker bursting forth (“Oh, where will I find/ the flowers in winter. . .” ), with the poem emptying out as it finishes. Amidst the word count and sonic regularity of Dworkin’s poem, the lyrical subject emerges obliquely (“eye”) but noticeably (via the verbal excess), at the end of the first stanza and continues as a diluted plural in the second (“our”).
The anomaly here, the line’s surplus of words coupled with the initial hint of subjectivity, is an intervention by the author in the poem’s a priori sonic and metrical constraints plussed with the ironic intervention into the subject matter: like the stanza break, the anomaly provides a fissure but does not cause the work to shatter completely (i.e., into “anything-goes” stream of consciousness, or even a further deviation from the formal constraints). With that line, however, the focus of the poem shifts from the constraint itself to the intervention. The poem becomes about the problem of experience and its representation through writing: the “I” emerges as excess, exterior to the exterior, an eye traumatized while observing the desert landscape. And in the second stanza, the landscape disappears: all that is left is the interiorized “addle,” subjectivity dissipated.
Two other poems in the book, “Feldspar” and “Haligraphy” continue with explorations of “breaks” in form informing their texts. The endnotes in Alkali on “Feldspar” reveal that the poem is the result of an attempt to write a three-columned text designed to work grammatically when read vertically or horizontally. Dworkin relates that he ultimately abandoned this attempt, instead writing through this initial structure, unraveling it into sentences. Rather than set up a system and get out of the way, Dworkin pivots the act of composition mid-stream in response to a contingency, namely his inability to find a satisfactory set of words to fulfill the initially planned structure. The result is a self-described “verbal landscape” that criss-crosses the initial textual site.
“Feldspar” begins with these three stanzas, each on its own page:
Fold grown feldspar in spathe fields sprat pleats failing to pare.
Over march of path: fault of fulled runs filtered by spare yielding spart spats; sprattle of foliage and felt fall to sparging to fill a scaf.
Over path — fulled filtered yielding spats of foliage fall to to fill. (20-21)
Like many of the poems in the book, the tight control of sound in “Feldspar” mimics the landscapes in which the poems are set, with vowels as washes of color and consonants supplying analogs to the haptic: fissures, edges, facades (most of the landscapes are deserts; however, the landscape in “Feldspar” describes vegetation that would seem to be lusher than that found in the desert, and feldspar itself is not a desert rock).
“Haligraphy” is similar to “Feldspar” in both its subject matter and structure: short stanzas made out of sentences, one stanza per page, describe a landscape out of concatenations of similar sounds. Following the poem’s title, much of the description involves salt and its resulting natural features. Like “Feldspar” the author’s note on “Haligraphy” reveals the compositional process of an author who intervenes rather than steps out of the way. “Haligraphy” appeared in an earlier letterpress edition in 2012 and is available on the Eclipse Archive (a fantastic resource founded by Dworkin). A comparison of Alkali’s “Haligraphy” with its earlier iteration reveals numerous differences between the two, none of which appear to fit in a pattern reflecting effects of an automatic process. The revisions range from replacements of prepositions to wholesale additions of text. For example, the stanza in the Alkali “Haligraphy” beginning “Some pinnacled salts maze with manacled molecules” (47) is entirely missing from the 2012 version of the poem. This stanza is probably the most heavily annotated of the stanzas in the poem, including a note that references The Natural History of Common Salt. The note attributes that book to Charles Tomlinson; however, the book was published in 1850. While one electronic copy of the book (on Google Books) is signed “C.T.” with a handwritten note also attributing it to Charles Tomlinson, it is likely that it was only Tomlinson’s copy, not only because the Charles Tomlinson was born 77 years after The Natural History of Common Salt’s publication, but also because none of the electronic versions have any author identified in the front matter.
Interestingly, Dworkin has intervened both to include this new stanza in the poem and annotate it with a (purposefully? wrong) reference to Charles Tomlinson. Stephens points out in his essay on Dworkin that it often isn’t clear why Dworkin is citing a particular source and that he often does so as a performative act, situating sometimes dubious citations and their placement among different types of language acts. Tomlinson is a poet known for his engagement with the natural in his poetry, including desert and western landscapes. Further, Judith Saunders in her book on Tomlinson, The Poetry of Charles Tomlinson: Border Lines, notes that Tomlinson’s poems of landscape focus on borders, lines, cracks and rifts [v] The proximity of Tomlinson’s work to Alkali in terms of the representation of the natural world only serves to highlight the broken link and further the slippage between the text of the poem and its referents.
“Haligraphy”’s broken “Tomlinson” end note also highlights Dworkin’s play with citation. For Stephens expressivity in Dworkin’s writing comes in through the back door of citation and the performative uses to which it is put.[vi] Stephens notes that Vanessa Place and Rob Fitterman coined the tongue-in-cheek term “sobject” to describe the blurry subject/object figure that results from Dworkin’s use of citation.[vii] “Emotions result from some felicities of salts,” (61) Dworkin writes in “Haligraphy,” acknowledging that affect in writing is a result of disparate elements (between the parts of the text and across the text, between subject and object) folding with and against each other. Dworkin’s assemblage of citation (including the broken one) allows for him to play with semantic distance, pulling meaning into immediate focus (or pushing it out of focus as with the broken citations). The poem itself can be treated as a landscape in which perspective might be pulled around by the author, though it is by no means completely controllable: “The house where I live, my life, what I write: I dream that all that might appear from far off like these cubes of rock salt look close up.” (60) Here the concept of distance is emphasized because the sentence is itself a quotation, this time from Breton’s Mad Love; it is also another interjection of the first person lyrical subject (a counterfeit one, since it is Dworkin ventriloquized by Breton) into a poem from which it is otherwise absent.
“Haligraphy” ends with the line “elegies resign from love poems that have learned to face/ their fate” (65), summarizing the poem’s intermingling images of landscape with themes of love and loss: “haligraphy” as a writing about salt (i.e., tears) and through salt (i.e., rock). In the 2012 version of the poem the line was “elegies explicate from love poems. . .” Dworkin may have dropped “explicate” in favor of the less clunky, and more elegiac “resign” (or “re-sign”), but “explication from” serves as an appropriate model for the descriptive poetics of Dworkin throughout Alkali. Description— a “writing from”— as explication entails an “unfolding” (to draw on the etymologies of both words). But explication is not just an “unfolding”; it is also a refolding. The word “fold” or its synonyms turn up again and again throughout Alkali. As opposed to Conceptual writing’s transcriptional model, Dworkin’s Alkali advocates description: that starting points for a work—what might be called subject matter— are folded, marbled, eddied by the writing process. Transcription is a macrooperation— subject matter transplanted from A to B— whereas description is a group of microoperations, multiple interventions.
The concept of the picturesque that Steve McCaffery explores in relation to Clark Coolidge’s work is helpful in understanding how description operates in Alkali.[viii] Using the theory of the picturesque forged by Uvedale Price and William Gilpin, McCaffery explains that the picturesque is a third aesthetic category, along with the sublime and the beautiful; unlike the other two, the picturesque “emphasizes those capricious sensory benefits deriving from an experience of diversity, intricacy, and partial obfuscation: pleasures that stimulate active curiosity and a playful encounter with details.”[ix] Looked at in terms of the concept of distance discussed earlier, the picturesque is a middle distance between the immense background of the sublime and the intimate foreground of the beautiful. Further, it is possible to extend the concept of picturesque beyond the subject matter of representation, i.e., the details of the landscape, but also to the manner of the representation itself. “[T]he picturesque moment endorses a poetics of sensation rather than interpretation or reflection.”[x] In the case of Coolidge (and Dworkin) a “poetics of sensation” operates in both its objective and subjective senses. Dworkin’s poems—their sonic play, citational conglomeration, semantic fractures— deliver a sensory-rich experience to the reader (the literary version of the picturesque), and at the same time they reenact the writer’s sensory experience itself (as in “All Saints”). In line with Stephens’ analysis of citation in Dure, Dworkin’s method of description as explication is not a pure intellectual exercise (a transparent relay of information); but neither is it an internal expression originating from deep within the lyrical subject. If one equates the beautiful mode of composition to lyrical expressivity (“first thought best thought” or “I do this I do that”) and the sublime mode to Conceptual writing (such as the writing Goldsmith claims are too big or boring to be read (sublime equated with abjectness)), then Dworkin’s model of composition would constitute the picturesque: disparate elements discovered, folded and sometimes broken by the author in the handling. The literal example here is provided by “Feldspar” in which it may be recalled that Dworkin unfolded the original crystalline-structure into horizontal sentences. Description as explication is writing as picturesque, a method that hovers between a sonic or textual representation of the experience and its explanation. An antecedent can be found in many of the Objectivist works, such as Zukofsky’s 80 Flowers. Description folds background and foreground, Dworkin’s “sobject” being not a constant in a self-sufficient system, but an activity of folding.
“The Falls,” the longest poem in the book, provides a slightly different example of Dworkin’s method of description as explication. The poem contains of two different types of lines: one set of lines that begin on left margin and consist of one or more complete declarative sentences, and another set of lines that are indented and consist of one to three phrases, yoked by periods, commas, or semicolons. These indented lines connect with definitions or uses of the word “fall” in English. Sometimes they are fragments of idiomatic phrases in which a form of “fall” normally appears, such as “(In) love; (a) sleep” (76) or “The mercury; the sudden gust; the pressure.” (109) The declarative sentences that sit flush with the margin explore connections between the word “fall” and other concepts such as chance, failure, and the relationship between physical concepts and linguistic ones. Some of these are paronomasic, ironic or otherwise playful (“Falsetto voices counterfeit, bankrupt and wanting.” (105)) and some are more straightforward, almost notes towards an essay:
Falar shades, not far, to fallar (to speak; to rule in favor, or against) —
language seems to change daily, modulating with all its continuous
language seems to change daily, modulating with all its continuous
Most of citations are to French writers (Derrida, Bataille, Deleuze, Ponge, Proust, Mallarme). However, the cite that haunts this poem is not overtly mentioned in the end notes, but is referenced in the title itself: The Falls is also the title of a Peter Greenaway film (and subsequent novelization).[xi] Dworkin actually discusses the novelization of the film in his book of lit crit, No Medium, as part of a larger analysis of the literary uses of citation, index and other “textual prostheses.”[xii] The film is a playful pseudo-documentary about 92 people, each with a last name beginning “Fall-“ and all of whom are affected in various ways by a mysterious disaster called the “Violent Unknown Event.”
Like the Greenaway film in which the consequences of the Violent Unknown Event are realized idiosyncratically in the episodes of each of the Fall- characters, so the various connotations and citations of the word “fall” are traced through Dworkin’s poem. The “landscape” depicted in “The Falls” is not tangible scenery (like Chalk Creek or the Great Lake in “Haligraphy”) but is instead made out of concepts of falling, whether linguistic, natural, social, or otherwise. The figure of description as explication in “The Falls” is constructed through the fissures that trickle through the gaps between the word “fall” and the phrases that “relate” to it as well as the transverse fissures between the two different types of lines (the indented sets and the flush set of lines). Or as Dworkin puts it in the poem itself: “The real character of these lines is apparent when the crystalline constitution of each grain is considered; they are not cracks; but slips along plains of cleavage or gliding—a movement of ions, in one layer, over another in a tensile stressed crystal.” (108)
In the middle of the book sits “The Crystal Text,” a large-scale citation directly invoking the book of the same name by Clark Coolidge.[xiii] Dworkin’s “The Crystal Text,” which the back cover characterizes as a “restaging” of Coolidge’s book, is a poem of 15 pages of 15 lines each (except for the last page which has only 12), forming a square of text on each page. Whereas Coolidge’s book is a long poem composed of 243 sections, Dworkin’s “The Crystal Text” is a compact, continuous whole. Coolidge’s The Crystal Text is a shaggy dialogue between the narrator and the crystal object that plays out in verse, sometimes sentence-based, sometimes phrase-based. Dworkin’s poem is made out of short declarative sentences (mostly single-clause).
“Restaging” proves to be an apt description of Dworkin’s “The Crystal Text.” Dworkin uses the words “quartz,” “crystal,” “stone” and “rock” throughout the poem as protagonists in the drama playing against the background of Coolidge’s long poem. The rock, crystal and quartz acquire a metaphorical agency through the poem’s propulsive simple subject-predicate chains: “The crystal is dedicated. It is given to the word. The crystal is addicting. . . The rock mocks. It scolds.” (39) At the same time, Dworkin’s poem operates as an unfaithful cover of Coolidge’s poem, replacing Coolidge’s jazzy free verse with tensile post-punk blocks of prose. It is as if Dworkin is performing a double cut on the Coolidge poem: Coolidge’s rough layout cut into precise facets at the same time as his “crystal” is split into the roles of “stone,” “quartz,” “crystal” and “rock.” Dworkin’s poem ends when the lapidary characters fall silent: “The rock is out of time. The crystal was beheld. The crystal is beholden.” (42)
As in “The Falls,” Dworkin’s “The Crystal Text” interrogates its relationship to its “source text”: “The crystal is my proof. Only it can know how accurate and imprecise I have been here—the extents of my unfaithfulness and simultaneous fidelities.” (41). Whereas Goldsmith’s practice would result in a transcription of Coolidge’s text so that the two are isomorphic (as if one could even imagine Goldsmith approaching a Coolidge text as a source!), Dworkin’s text shares the same elements (the quartz, the narrator) but in a different distribution. Dworkin’s citation functions much in the same way as Robert Smithson’s non-site, which serves as an index to the site but does not attempt to represent it, or to reproduce its conditions or the artist’s impressions.[xiv] Again the concept of distance enters (in a reversal of the scheme above that sketched a sublime/beautiful parallel to Conceptualism/lyricism): Dworkin opts to not put The Crystal Text in the foreground via transcription, but he also refuses to write his experience or interpretation of Coolidge’s text thereby turning it into simple subject matter.
What Conceptual writing (or the rhetorical platforms it sends forth) may have stumbled up against in its two high-profile controversies in 2015 is the realization that even in the most authorial laissez faire works the interface between a piece of writing and its context (this interface being part of the “system of writing”) is not unidirectional, transparent and passive. It is a place of contention. The poems in Alkali acknowledge this concept albeit in a milder manner outside the ethical-political soul-searching in which Conceptualism currently finds itself. Dworkin’s poetics, where intervention folds concept, is one that shows its work, conscious of the destabilizing role of the author in the process of composition.
[i] Craig Dworkin, introduction to Against Expression, ed. Craig Dworkin and Kenneth Goldsmith (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 2010), xliv.
[ii] Paul Stephens uses the term “expressive” in opposition to “conceptual” in his essay on of Dworkin’s work, “Self-Portrait in a Context Mirror: Pain and Quotation in the Conceptual Writing of Craig Dworkin,” Postmodern Culture, 19, no. 3, (2009). http://pmc.iath.virginia.edu/text-only/issue.509/19.3stephens.txt (Accessed October 19, 2015). Although in the title to Dworkin’s anthology “expression” is what Conceptual writing is purportedly against, I’ve chosen “interventionism” rather than “expressivism” as its opposite. Both terms describe an active author, but “expressivist” and “expression” carry fairly loaded connotations that aren’t as useful here as they are in Stephens’s essay.
[iii] Stephens, “Self-Portrait in a Context Mirror,” np.
[iv]Friedrich Hölderlin, Sämtliche Gedichte und Hyperion (Frankfurt am Main: Insel Verlag, 1999), 320 (translation mine).
[v] Judith P. Saunders, The Poetry of Charles Tomlinson: Border Lines (Madison: Farleigh-Dickinson University Press, 2003), 19.
[vi] “Dworkin, I think, has a slightly different end in mind: something like a return of the subject through history and lived experience. This return of the subject can be read as a response to the postwar avant-garde's most severe prohibitions on "the lyrical ego"--but this return of the subject can be interpreted in other ways as well: as a response to the high modernist use (and abuse) of quotation; as a new hybrid poetic mode; or (as I am primarily reading the poem here) as an investigation of conditions for the articulation of pain.”
[vii] Stephens writes, “By their neologism "sobjectivity," Place and Fitterman mean to suggest that ‘Objectivity is old-fashioned, subjectivity idem’ and that ‘The Sobject exists in a perpetual substantive eclipse: more s/object by turns and degrees.’”
[viii] Steve McCaffery, “Difficult Harmony: The Picturesque Detail in Gilpin, Price and Clark Coolidge’s Space,” The Darkness of the Present (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2012), 149-166. In “Fredrick Law Olmstead and the Dialectical Landscape” Robert Smithson similarly uses the concept of the picturesque from Price and Gilpin to frame the dialectic present in Olmstead’s Central Park. Robert Smithson, Robert Smithson: The Collected Writings, ed. Jack Flam (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006), 157-171.
[ix] McCaffery, 154.
[xi] The Falls, directed by Peter Greenaway (1979; New York: Zeitgeist Films; 2006) DVD.
[xii] Craig Dworkin, No Medium (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2013), 80-81.
[xiii] Clark Coolidge, The Crystal Text (Los Angeles: Sun & Moon Press, 1995).
[xiv] “But it’s the abstract equivalent of the site. . . There is no representational aspect between [site and non-site.]” Smithson, 199.
James Sanders is a member of the Atlanta Poets Group, a writing and performing collective. His most recent book, Self-Portrait in Plants, was published by Coconut Books in 2015. The University of New Orleans Press also recently published the group’s An Atlanta Poets Group Anthology: The Lattice Inside.