Addressing the Wound: Anadiplosis in Recent Poetry

In past posts, I’ve explored the use of anadiplosis in modernist and contemporary poetry, from Laura Riding (link)  to Geoffrey G. O’Brien (link). Anadiplosis is a rhetorical ordering technique in which the last word (or words) of a phrase is repeated at the beginning of the subsequent phrase. For example, consider this passage from Troilus and Cressida. Ulysses explains what will happen if the “rule of degree” (roughly, hierarchy) is neglected:

Then every thing includes itself in power,
Power into will, will into appetite;
And appetite, an universal wolf,
So doubly seconded with will and power,
Must make perforce an universal prey,
And last eat up himself.

Anadiplosis is often—though not always—climactic, building from minor to major, less important to most important, etc, creating a sort of hierarchy itself. The nifty thing about this passage is that it forms what you might call an anti-hierarchy, from bad to worse to worst. It works by degrees to describe the loss of degree.

I most recently encountered anadiplosis in last week’s Guardian Poem of The Week, “The Lake of Memories” by Howard Altmann. Click here to read the poem. Carol Rumens’s discussion of the poem is outstanding, and I encourage you to read it. I won’t attempt anything as encompassing here.

You’ll notice that anadiplosis structures the entire poem, with the last word of each stanza initiating the following stanza. Before I dig into that, however, I’d like to look at a couple other salient structural characteristics. The poem describes a house and its surroundings, which bleeds into being a sort of metaphor for the self. It begins:

Voices sit
like broken chairs
in a room.

A room stands
for the ceremony
of impermanence.

Impermanence cracks
the façade
of self

The progression of the poem’s 7 stanzas is interesting. It starts inside the room of the house, then progresses to the room, to the facade, to the walls, and concludes all out of doors. The camera, so to speak, starts with a still life, and slowly pulls back to an aerial view.

However, not all aspects of the poem line up in a tidy sequence. For instance, each stanza is governed by a single verb, located at the end its first line. In order, they are sit, stands, cracks, builds, frames, bridge, and winds. Looking at them like this, I see no obvious sequence, but 3 pairs of quasi-opposing terms: sit/stands, cracks/builds, frames (as in, enclose)/bridge (to connect), with “winds” standing on its own.  

That “winds,” and its prominent placement as the final verb, may be a clue regarding Altmann’s use of anadiplosis and how it fits into the poem’s thematics. Here’s the rest of the poem:

The self builds
its walls
of healing.

Healing frames
the house
of wounds.

Wounds bridge
darkness and light
over time.

Time winds through
the lake of memories
in frozen tongue.

To wind is to move in twisting motion; it suggests complication and entanglement. Each successive use of anadiplosis—room, impermanence, self, healing, wounds, time, [tongue/voices]—creates its own sort of entanglement, with “healing” happening before “wounds,” and wounds doing the unlikely work of bridging. Anadiplosis is essential to the poem’s calculated confusion of categories, where abstractions like “impermanence” and “self” are somehow embodied by architecture.

The prepositions—especially “of,” which appears 5 times—do a lot of heavy lifting, and underscore the irresolution of the poem: “the self builds / its walls / of healing.” “Walls of healing” could be walls created by means of healing, or walls that are a source of healing. “Of” allows for either reading, and this spare poem does not provide much evidence to support one reading over the other. The other instances of “of” work in a similar fashion, as does “over” in the 6th stanza, and “in” in the final line.

The poem is an accumulation of the complicated, the not-quite-resolved, with each successive stanza attempting to join past and present, abstract and concrete, and not fully succeeding. This is not a fault, but a brilliant poetic strategy. If the poem is addressing a wound, then anadiplosis serves as a kind of stitching, and the poem itself becomes the record of imperfect healing: a scar.

Ruin Bares Us: William Bronk and the Poetics of Demolition

William Bronk is a chronically neglected poet. He occasionally gets a blip of attention—for instance, when his poem “Midsummer” was cited in Ben Lerner’s 2014 novel 10:04—but those articles are more interested in explaining why he’s obscure than encouraging readers to give his work serious consideration. It’s unfortunate. While he has garnered the enthusiasm of a wide range of contemporary writers—poets such as Joseph Massey, John Taggart, and US Poet Laureate Kay Ryan, as well as fiction writer Lydia Davis—his poetry never seems to take.

Of course, one may guess the source of this neglect: think “poetry” and its typical associations—lush language, music, metaphor, description—and you’ve just described everything a Bronk poem is not. But that’s precisely the reason we should be reading him. The value of Bronk is his relentless skepticism regarding almost all conventional poetic means.

Yet Bronk’s skepticism is not mere PoMo “problematizing.” The stakes are high: his writing is fueled by a “want” or “desire”—favorite words for Bronk—for “the world” or reality in the largest sense. And it’s clear that for Bronk, that desire can never be fulfilled, especially by language:

How almost like the beasts, with only barks

and cries we are, so tangent is any speech

to all we know.

But Bronk doesn’t merely shrug and say everything is “beyond words.” He turns language’s failure into an asset. As he explains in his essay “Copan: Historicity Gone”:  “It is by our most drastic failures that we may perhaps catch glimpses of something real, of something which is.” He puts it more succinctly in his poem “On the Street”: “Ruin bares us.”

For Bronk, writing is ruin, something that appears to have once been inhabited and whole, but is now an expression of absence: “Thought is what we think and then shed; / We turn and look back on thought, lamenting it” (“Beatific Effigies” LS ). This shattered indication of what was once there is the best poetry has to offer:

People are passing; I look in passing at them.

Look, how the light comes down through them: they glow.

Once, I grasped at one. Oh, it was sweet.

It had nothing to do with me, or anyone. (“Passing” LS 182)

A poem is to reality as a lens is to light: the seemingly important thing—the light, the world—is what passes through. And passing is the right word here, connoting both something transitory, on its way to elsewhere (what Emerson called abandonment), and also something that’s dead, the mere remains of the living—ruins.

However, this is not merely a thematic concern, or a theoretical description of all language as such. Ruin, or more specifically, the process of ruination, is an essential poetic technique for Bronk. Take this brief untitled poem:

The truth has many forms which are not its form
If it has one. What has a form of its own
Or, having, is only it? There is truth.

The first line and a half forms a series of small demolitions: The opening statement “The truth has many forms” is immediately questioned/contradicted by “which are not its form.” Then both the statement and its contradiction are reduced to the merely hypothetical: “If it has one.” Next, the notion of form itself is questioned, then dismissed as irrelevant, whether it exists or not.

By the end, the poem has abandoned everything that it attempted to predicate of “the truth.” All that’s left is the bare word, sans definite article: a placeholder for something we cannot have or know, hitched to an impersonal expletive construction, seemingly indifferent to human agency.

Ben Lerner and the Transcendence of Words

Leonardo Da Vinci famously argued that painting is superior to poetry, in part because painting calls upon the “more worthy” sense of vision, whereas poetry merely acts “by way of the ear.” Moreover, a portrait clearly resembles its subject, but the verbal equivalent of a portrait, the subject’s name, is arbitrary, and corresponds in no clear way to its bearer. Finally, Da Vinci points out that a painting of, say, a battle, will have more viewers, provoke longer consideration, and garner more praise than a poem about a battle.

Some have said that Da Vinci’s argument is merely a clever rhetorical exercise, and clearly, his is not the final word on what has come to be known as the paragone (Italian for “comparison”) between the verbal and the visual. Recently, for instance, the topic was taken up in Ben Lerner’s short story, “The Polish Rider,” in which the unnamed narrator states that “I love [stories] that involve ruined paintings or missing paintings or unmade paintings.” He goes on to discuss non-existent paintings that have been described in fiction, pointing out that they demonstrate how writing/literature is superior to painting:

words can describe paintings the crazy artists can’t actually paint, or intuit canvases that were as of yet unpainted, unpaintable. And isn’t it really true of all ekphrastic literature, fiction and poetry, that even when it claims to be describing or praising a work of visual art it is in fact asserting its own superiority?

In an interview, Lerner acknowledges that while the narrator’s point may be overstated, we should still take him seriously. Lerner explains:

Take the classic example of ekphrasis: the description of Achilles’ shield in the Iliad. The description is so elaborate and expansive as to cease to be realistic; no actual shield could contain all that detail… . The verbal, while pretending to give life to the visual, often transcends it: words can describe a shield we can’t actually make, can’t even effectively paint… .

Lerner’s claim that words can “transcend” the visual is strikingly similar to a comment Coleridge made about Milton:

image

Milton’s description is a tissue of contradictions: a shapeless shape consisting of an insubstantial substance: “for each seemed either.” Coleridge explains that Milton’s passage compels the reader to attempt to visualize “the unimaginable,” which will not be reduced to “a mere image,” thereby “exhibiting the narrow limit of painting, as compared with the boundless power of poetry.” We simply cannot picture what this passage attempts to depict. In other words—specifically, Lerner’s—Milton “transcends the visual.”

The idea that the verbal can somehow overwrite the visual is underscored by the title of Lerner’s story, “The Polish Rider.” It’s also the title of a well-known painting by Rembrandt. Rembrandt is never actually named in Lerner’s story about two missing paintings. It’s as if the painting has been supplanted by a story that itself describes a provocative absence.

Yet Lerner’s thinking does not stop there. Words not only have the capacity to figure the unimaginable, but—as Lerner argues in his recent book, The Hatred of Poetry—they can also describe a literature that cannot be written. Lerner points out that Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn” “describes an ideal music the poems themselves cannot achieve”:

Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard
Are sweeter; therefore, ye soft pipes, play on;
Not to the sensual ear, but, more endeared,
Pipe to the spirit ditties of no tone.

Lerner cites Michael Clune regarding Keats’s “images of a virtual music,” and explains that it’s “a music Keats can describe but not play (and that nobody can play: it’s not difficult, it’s impossible). Literary form can’t achieve Keatsian music, it can only figure it… . [W]hat [Keats’s lines] describe can’t be realized by any human instrument in time.” This is the source of poetry’s “hatred” of itself: “‘Poetry’ is a word for a value no particular poem can realize… . Hating on actual poems, then, is often an ironic if sometimes unwitting way of expressing the persistence of the demand of Poetry.”

Capital-P Poetry, then, is an impossible ideal that can be posited, but cannot be achieved, by individual poems. Or as Wallace Stevens put it 60 years before Lerner, each poem  is “a part, but part, but tenacious particle, / Of the skeleton of the ether, the total / Of letters… “ (“Primitive Like an Orb”).

Our / Vertical / Miseries / & / Joys: A Fantasia on Noelle Kocot’s ‘Phantom Pains of Madness’

Typically, I write on a legal size notebook, turned long-side horizontal, treating the page more like a blackboard. But in honor of today’s topic, Noelle Kocot’s new book of poems, Phantom Pains of Madness, I’ve gone vertical, since her entire book consists of poems with one-word lines, like this:

I
Am
Not
An
Ogre
And
Without
All
Of
This
Propelling
Me
To
Write
Poems
What
Is
Left  
Only
The  
Life
The
Singing
Language
Around
The
Life
(from “Life is Beautiful”)

All / Of / This / Propelling / Me: the writing does propel, in that it feels incomplete, straining after an impossible wholeness:

I
Am
Telling
You
The
Truth
That
The
Limitations
Were
All
Pure
Lies
(from “Limitations”)

You’d think, and I know you’re expecting me to say, that Kocot’s lineation emphasizes each word. But that’s not quite right. The stress—that is, the emphasis and the tension—is on the following word, a relentless sense of anticipation, of endless nextness. As the false endings accumulate, the reader is put on edge:

Edges
Over
Your
Visual
Cliff
(from “The Gone World”)

I
Don’t
Know
The
Future
But
Exile
And
Mitosis
Are
The
Commas
That
Lurch
Us
Into
A
Galaxy
Of
Forever
(from “The Future”)

This format is perfect for expressing anxiety as well as creating it in the reader. It’s unsettling: you could say that Kocot’s lines are paratactic, a jolt from word to word. Or you could say they’re enjambed. I’d argue that it’s always both, and that it’s up to you, dear reader, to decide at each turn how to read it. The word verse—etym. Latin, “to turn”— was never more appropriate: each word/line is a turn.

———–

Why do they call it longing, that aching sense of yearning/grief/desire? Kocot’s line scheme makes these poems long. In fact, you could say that Phantom Pains of Madness is a phenomenology of longing:

I
Expend
A
Ball
Of
Yarn
Out
In
The
Yard
Yearning
(from ”Yarn”)

I
Find
I
Want
Ceaselelessly

(from “Pills”)

A yearning for

A
Future
Full
Of
Holes
(from “(____)”)

Or an irrecoverable past:

Life
Of
The
Things
That
Pass
(from “Stains”)

In “Sunstorm,”  Kocot mentions “Salad / Days,” a phrase that finds its origin in Antony and Cleopatra. It’s Shakespeare’s most enjambed play—its lines, like its characters, always overspilling their bounds—and appropriately enough, it’s a play of longing: “Give me my robe, put on my crown, I have / Immortal longings in me.”

Or as Kocot puts it:

The
God-
Hunger
(from “Addict”)

A
Hereafter
Where
Infinite
Hope
The
Most
Profound
Kind
Lays
Itself
Out
(from “On Paul V’s Birthday”)

To Go Close Means Forgetting: John Berger’s Art Criticism

Many gallery and museum goers are guilty of what I’ll call the identification fallacy, that is, confusing the name of the artwork/artist with the experience of the work. For many viewers, that moment of identification—usually accomplished with the help of a wall label—marks the end of seeing. As a result, a rich, intricate artwork that has the potential to occupy our eyes and minds for hours is reduced instead to “a Picasso” or “a Martin.” But for the critic who wants to encourage viewers’ deep engagement with the work, the question becomes, how to help viewers resist this birder-like tendency to treat artworks as names to be collected/checked off a list?

I’ve been dipping into John Berger’s essays on art, and I’m fascinated by how he solves this problem. Here’s the opening of the appropriately named essay, “A Gratitude Hard to Name”:

Is it still possible to write more words about him? I think of those already written, mine included, and the answer is “No.” If I look at his paintings, the answer is again—for a different reason—“No”; the canvases command silence. I almost said plead for, and that would have been false, for there is nothing pathetic about a single image he made—not even the old man with his head in his hands at the gates of eternity. All his life he hated blackmail and pathos.

Only when I look at his drawings does it seem worthwhile to add to the words. Maybe because his drawings resemble a kind of writing, and he often drew on his own letters. The ideal project would be to draw the process of his drawing, to borrow his drawing hand. Nevertheless I will try with words.

In front of a drawing, drawn in July 1888, of a landscape around the ruined abbey of Montmajour near Arles, I think I see the answer to the obvious question: why did this man become the most popular painter in the world?

You’ll find the full essay here.

When it comes to art criticism, we’ve been trained to expect to be told the name of the artist somewhere in the first paragraph, if not the first sentence. Here, only in the 3rd paragraph do we begin to have a guess as to who the artist might be, and even then, Berger does not name him, but only mentions his status as “the most popular painter in the world.”

In fact, Berger never mentions the artist’s full name, giving us only his first name, 2 lines away from the end of the essay. I’ll quote the final 2 paragraphs so you have a full sense of the effect. Berger imagines the artist working on the drawing of the ruined abbey:

As he sits with his back to the monastery looking at the trees, the olive grove seems to close the gap and to press itself against him. He recognizes the sensation—he has often experienced it, indoors, outdoors, in the Borinage, in Paris, or here in Provence. To this pressing—which was perhaps the only sustained intimate love he knew in his lifetime—he responds with incredible speed and the utmost attention. Everything his eye sees, he fingers. And the light falls on the touches on the vellum paper just as it falls on the pebbles at his feet—on one of which (on the paper) he will write Vincent.

Within the drawing today there seems to be what I have to call a gratitude, which is hard to name. Is it the place’s, his, or ours?

Berger employs this delayed naming in many of his essays on art (to varying degrees: sometimes it’s just a paragraph), as well as in his profile pieces. For instance, in his essay “A Girl Like Antigone” he does not name his subject, Simone Weil, until the very last sentence. But the effect is the same: we engage particulars instead of generalizations; our preconceptions are suspended, and line by line a new understanding emerges, with Berger as our guide. Our relationship to Berger’s writing as well as to his subject becomes more intimate. As Berger says elsewhere, regarding the artistic process in general, “To go close means forgetting convention, reputation, reasoning, hierarchies and self.“ Berger helps us forget so we can go close.

***

A note regarding the new anthology Portraits: John Berger on Artists, edited by Tom Overton. The “delayed naming” technique is clearly important to Berger’s “project” (a word that Berger himself would probably find too grandiose), as he has employed it in essays from the ‘60s to the present. For this reason, I’m dismayed at what I imagine was Overton’s editorial decision to remove the original titles of the essays, and replace them with the name of the artist they discuss. So now “A Gratitude Hard to Name” is bluntly called, “Vincent Van Gogh.” Of course 500+ pages of Berger’s incredible writing gathered in a handsome volume is to be celebrated, but it’s unfortunate that Overton compromised the integrity of the titles.

——-

This essay is a follow-up to my piece posted on Essay Daily last week: Colluding with Accident: John Berger’s Artful Artlessness

The Feeling of Of: The Unappreciated Preposition

Prepositions can seem to be adjuncts to a vocabulary, more grammatical devices than words. But they, too, mean. —Robert Graves and Laura Riding

The recent/ongoing debate about adverbs betrays a bias, so deeply held that we fail to recognize it as such. It’s assumed that nouns and verbs are essential. So are adjectives and even adverbs, we allow, despite the occasional kerfuffle over their relative importance. But prepositions? They’re unworthy of either praise or condemnation. They’re just there, and barely so.  

Yet that easy-to-miss quality is what makes them the most important part of language. Prepositions work almost invisibly, while the more salient nouns and verbs and their modifiers hog all the credit. They truck in relations, which is a trickier—and frankly more essential—business than naming things or designating actions. They are the duct tape of language, jerry-rigging words and phrases into sentences.

It’s no accident they’re called “function words”: they do the real work of language. Nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs are just fingers pointing at the moon—or fingers pointing at the fingers pointing at… .   

Other words are replaceable, but you can’t thesaurus a preposition. As the result of centuries of make-do use, rushing in where other words fear to tread, each preposition has acquired a complex range of meanings, so subtle that it’s almost impossible to define, that is, to put into other words. If you don’t believe me, look up of or about or at.

They are also the most flexible/adaptable word type, embracing all other functions of language. According to Laura Riding and Robert Graves, “Of, as a possessive force, is very verbal.” But sometimes, they add, of can be “nominal, quasi-appositional,” for example, “a case of mistaken identity.”

This grammatical shapeshifting is much more subtle than, say, than classic anthimeria, using one part of speech for another, such as verbing nouns, as I did a couple paragraphs back with “thesaurus.” Anthimeria is self-conscious, show-offy, and calls attention to itself like a crack in the mirror. It makes readers stumble. But prepositions silently and effortlessly adapt to the needs of the situation.

Their nuance enables their neglect. Let’s face it. Most of us are linguistic Yahoos, oohing and ahing over glittery substantives. But as William James warned:

We ought to say a feeling of and, a feeling of if, a feeling of but, and a feeling of by, quite as readily as we say a feeling of blue or a feeling of cold. Yet we do not: so inveterate has our habit become of recognizing the existence of the substantive parts alone, that language almost refuses to lend itself to any other use.

Yet the importance of prepositions has not been lost on everyone, especially poets. For example, Gertrude Stein (who studied with William James at Radcliffe) said that

Prepositions can live one long life being really being nothing but absolutely nothing but mistaken and that makes them irritating if you feel that way about mistakes but certainly something that you can be continuously using and everlastingly enjoying. I like prepositions the best of all.

Most prepositions are modest monosyllables, so we can understand why Stein had a thing for possibly the most ostentatious preposition, notwithstanding, using it five times in the final paragraph of Tender Buttons.

In this excerpt from Stanzas in Meditation, Stein uses prepositions—by, for, with, of, and in—to finesse our understanding of an antecedentless “it.”

By it by which by it
As not which not which by it
For it it is in an accessible with it
But which will but which will not it
Come to be not made not made one of it
By that all can tell all call for in it
That they can better call add
Can in add none add it.
—From “Stanza VII”

Stein’s use of a cypher-pronoun compels us to seek meaning elsewhere: we lean into the prepositions, and the meaning becomes kaleidoscopic. “Meaning,” I admit, is a clumsy and flat-footed term to designate what this poem says—really, does—but that only proves my point: prepositions take us to a place where our metalanguage gives out, where we need the linguistic equivalent to quantum physics to account for what’s going on.

But not all pro-preposition poets are experimentalists. Robert Frost, for instance, seemed almost obsessed with “in” and “out”: “All out-of-doors looked darkly in at him” (“An Old Man’s Winter’s Night”); “What I was walling in or walling out” (”Mending Wall”); “Back out of all this now too much for us” (”Directive”). His “Spring Pools” is a study in prepositions:

These pools that, though in forests, still reflect
The total sky almost without defect,
And like the flowers beside them, chill and shiver,
Will the flowers beside them soon be gone
And yet not out by any brook or river,
But up by roots to bring dark foilage on.

The trees that have it in their pent-up buds
To darken nature and be summer woods—
Let them think twice before they use their powers
To blot out and drink up and sweep away
These flowery waters and these watery flowers
From snow that melted only yesterday.

They say you should never end a sentence in a preposition, but we know that’s just more anti-prep propaganda, denying this amazing word-group the most prominent place in the sentence. So, as a corrective, allow me to break another marmism—”Never end with a quote!”—and conclude with two preposition-heavy quotes from contemporary poets. First this brief but brain-bending excerpt from Geoffrey G. O’Brien’s “Experience In Groups,” from April’s Boston Review:

                      The sun
Has gone out in the poem
In both senses of out, all senses
Of in.

And finally this poem by Rosmarie Waldrop, from her poem sequence Pre + Con or Positions + Junctions, reprinted in Gap Gardening: Selected Poems, just published by New Directions:

Of bodies
of various
sizes of

vibrations
of blue excite
of never except

in his early
in childhood has he touched
of the space of

between of
to allow
of for impact

now of that color
has slowed
its pitch

or of skin
of but light
no deep foundation

nor of leans into
the blue

Margin of Error: Notes, Failure, and the Reader’s Proximity

Proximity is not a state, a repose, but a restlessness… . Never close enough, proximity does not congeal into a structure… .—Emmanuel Levinas

Dwelling at the bottom of the page or in the back of the book, appended to the main text by tiny superscript numbers, notes (be they foot- or end-) are often considered to be the site of obscurity and pedantry. Yet in the past century or so, notes have moved conceptually if not literally from the margin to the center of certain works of literature. For instance, many have argued that the notes to T. S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” (1922) should be regarded as part of the poem. For Nabokov’s Pale Fire, the notes are the novel. David Foster Wallace’s marginal shenanigans are well-known. More recently, Tyrone Williams and Jenny Boully have each written essays consisting entirely of footnotes.

Two works published this April put notes to innovative and compelling use: Jen Hofer’s essay on translation, “Proximate Shadowing: Translation as Radical Transparency and Excess” (published on the Poetry Foundation website) and Brian Blanchfield’s collection of essays, Proxies: Essays Near Knowing. Interestingly, both writers draw our attention to their notes by explicitly discussing them.

Hofer discusses how translation is so often thought of in terms of access and assimilation, providing readers with something they can completely comprehend. Hofer counters that the true aim of translation should be “empathetic not-understanding.” She explains:

For years I’ve been thinking and writing through ideas around the ways translation can generate empathetic not-understanding as an alternative to simplistic and often essentializing or assimilationist ideas around the way texts in translation can provide a “window” into other cultures, as opposed to being tools for unlearning the dominance of English and of USAmerican frameworks for conceiving and categorizing complex interrelated phenomena like race, ethnicity, nationality, linguistic culture, gender, class, sexuality, ability, and all kinds of other constellations that make people people.

Hofer points out that no translation wholly ‘gets’ its source text. But most translations work hard to cover up these inevitable shortcomings. Hofer thinks the translator should instead highlight the source text’s resistances, and acknowledge—even emphasize—the translation’s failures:

My approach constitutes interventionist translation … goes a little too far, while not getting near enough. It’s not quite right, as translation never gets things quite “right”—it’s not about rightness or fixity or one-to-one correlation, not about digesting the source or hitting the target, but about the always-in-process-of-failing attempt to recognize the substance and context of something from somewhere else, and bring that recognition here, while remaining wondrously aware of the processes of transfer, and of what resists transfer.

Here’s where notes become so important. A note in a translation is an acknowledgement of a failure: if the translation proper is “good enough,” no note needed. Even in traditional translations, the note, in its attempt to explain away a translation’s deficiency, only draws our attention to it—and to the essential otherness of the source text:

The notes come directly from and into the translation process itself—they are not afterthought or afterward, but interruption, excess, interjection, extraneous needful commentaries that leave the imprint of where I was or imagined or wished myself to be as I was in the moment of not-understanding that builds, question by question, impossibility by impossibility, the particularly political kind of not-understanding-but-coexisting-in-proximity translation can spark.

Proximity: much of Hofer’s essay is taken with an analysis of the spatial metaphors we use to talk about translation. We translate something “into” our language. We digest the text; translators hit the target. So described, the original of a translation becomes the quarry, something to be shot and consumed. Proximity offers an alternative to the violent paradigms of translation. It replaces knowledge with acknowledgement, silent assimilation with noisy interruption. Proximity is an uneasy coexisting, sustained and embodied by the notes.

—–

Brain Blanchfield’s Proxies: Essays Near Knowing has garnered significant critical attention in part because of its intriguing premise: this entire collection of essays—on everything from owls to Br’er Rabbit to frottage—was written with a constraint: “a total suppression of recourse to other authoritative sources.” Blanchfield adds a second and related constraint: “to stay with [each essay’s] subject until it gives onto an area of personal uneasiness, a site of vulnerability, and keep unpacking from there.” Each essay begins with an “invocation of sorts” that recommits Blanchfield to his project: “Permitting shame, error and guilt. Myself the single source.”

This commitment to vulnerability, error and shame is underscored by what Blanchfield calls a “rolling endnote”:

At the end of this book there is a rolling endnote called “Correction.” It sets right much—almost certainly not at all—of what between here and there I get wrong. It runs twenty-one pages. It may still be running.

Like Hofer, Blanchfield associates notes with failure. Notes are indices of weakness, error, or incompletion. He connects the “imprecision” that his notes seem to stress with his book’s title:

In the sciences… proxy… expressess a kind of concession to imprecision. A failure. It’s the word for a subject you choose to study to produce data that can approximate the data you’d get from the actual, desired subject, if it were not prohibitively hard to apprehend.

Proximity haunts Proxies: the subtitle of the book is “Essays Near Knowing” (my emphasis) and it concludes with an essay “The Near Term.” There’s an entire essay on “peripersonal space.” Blanchfield explains:

Peripersonal space … is the entire volume of space within a person’s reach, or within a single conceivable momentary extension of his person. Think da Vinci, and the geometry of his jumping jack in extremis sketch. All that. It includes everything at arm’s length and a bit more… .

Both Blanchfield and Hofer believe that the “failures” foregrounded by notes are essential. For Hofer, notes are an indication of/respect for a source text’s foreignness. For Blanchfield, they’re a necessary concession to not only the imprecision of memory/personal knowledge, but also the complexity of human relationships. For instance, the essay on peripersonal space is about his vexed relationship with his mother. And both writers are concerned in their own way with the proximate, the close-but-not-identified-with.

This leads me to a final “proximity”: the reader. Notes are an acknowledgement of the reader. Jacques Derrida has written of the “double-bind” of notes: that they attempt to close off a text, to make it self-sufficient, while simultaneously demonstrating that it is not, as notes are there for the benefit of readers who may need additional explanation. Notes are the site of vulnerability, a hemorrhage, where the boundary of the writing becomes porous. Blanchfield emphasizes this vulnerable aspect of notes. Combined with his ritualistic “invocations,” the notes become a serial confession. And the reader is his witness.

As Hofer would have it, notes create a double bind that’s significantly different from Derrida’s (or Blanchfield’s) understanding. For her, the note acknowledges the reader while emphasizing the foreignness of the text. The note brings us close without letting us in: proximity. These noted resistances of the source text aren’t difficulties to be surmounted; they are instead “opportunities for us as readers to become translated.” Hofer admits she’s not completely clear on what that means in practical terms, but I find the idea compelling. The translation becomes not a window into another culture, nor a tool of assimilation, but a means of exposing readers’ native conceptual limitations, and making us strangers to ourselves.