In the Jagged Flow

Stan Brakhage, from "The Dante Quartet"

(Life has become time-lapsed fragments. I began writing these reflections some weeks ago, trying to capture the halting, disorienting, jagged experience of pandemic time. It all crumbled and keeps crumbling, yet in crumbling feels oddly static.)

Time tripped ahead this summer; I can barely account for June and July in memory, though when I look back over events in my work calendar, notes I made for myself, emails I sent, I see that plenty of things got done, read, viewed, written. This is pandemic time, chaos time, life unmoored. Eventually, we will get to look back at these years and what they did to perception. The constant uncertainty, the underlying fear, the vigilance, anger, bewilderment. "The lost year," I said to somebody, then wasn't sure quite when I was referring to, and that confusion only highlighted the loss. The lost year began ten thousand years ago and yesterday.

"I haven't been in this room in two years," I said this week (which, now as I write this, was two or maybe three weeks ago) of a room at my workplace that I used to enter once every few months. I stared at the ceiling, a criss-cross of metal and wood, all brightly lit, the light frozen in the same quality as I remembered it from when I was last in that room, the light a remnant, even as I knew this light was not that light.

We are told now is a time of change, a difficult time. The people who control my workplace say this. We are told people resist change because their identity is too wrapped up in the status quo. I don't believe this, because I believe everything is change, that only impermanence is permanent, that we are splashing in Heraclitus's river. Change is scary they tell us, which is nonsense because if everything is change then everything is scary. (So maybe it is not nonsense. Everything is scary.) People don't fear change, they fear chaos and disempowerment. We have lived in, and are still living in, a lot of chaos and disempowerment.

I got away from words a lot this summer, partly because I sought to get away from self, and words for me are too deeply tied to self, the language makes self central, especially English, a language that traps us in subjectvity, mocking our attempts to escape the I, I, I — every plural pronoun a toy soldier imperialist in its presumptuous claim to compound identity, a speaking for others who most likely do not exist. 

I'm not sure English words can ever be objects, really. Gertrude Stein got closest, and I read a lot of Stein this summer.

I am trying to say something but I have not said it.

Why.

Because I add my I.

—Gertrude Stein, "Stanzas in Meditation"

In addition to reading Stein, I watched Stan Brakhage movies, particularly my favorite, the film that made me forever admire Brakhage's work, "The Dante Quartet" — just paint on film, a huge panoply of abstract expressionist images, pure visuality, the wondrous rhythm of light.

For music this summer I often listened to things like Robert Fripp and Brian Eno's Evening Star and Deathprod's Occulting Disk. Sounds.

(Revisiting Tony Scott's film Deja Vu: this jumpy, frenetic action movie about time felt staid and conservative in the current moment. I love later Tony Scott movies, everything from Enemy of the State to Unstoppable, with Domino as the masterpiece. When they first came out, the later, more pop-avant-garde Scott films felt almost unwatchable in their assault on the senses, but now the world is itself such a sensual assault that the films seem almost quaint. Perhaps this is because of their sound. One of the things I find most powerful in Sam Brakhage's movies is their silence. Silence is the great trangression for our contemporary world.)

I wrote little of any value this summer, but I wrote quite a bit, a 10,000-word story that is terrible and a 5,000-word story that has some good qualities but overall is dead on the page. (I revised that story recently to bring it back from the dead. I don't know if I succeeded, but I at least feel better about it. When I wrote the first sentences of this paragraph, I despaired of ever writing fiction again, convinced I did not know how. I do not know if I have revised it into a good story, but I have revised it into a better story.) I tried to finish an academic article I've been working on for two years, and which is coming finally into some form, but the closer it gets to form the more banal it feels. I did, though, manage to put some manuscripts together of old work, collages of pre-pandemic writing. Whether they will be of interest to anyone else is yet to be seen, but putting them together was a useful exercise, a reminder of other times.

I did not finish reading a single novel this summer, the first summer in memory when I did not read at least one. I started many novels. I barely read any whole books at all. (Today, I finished reading a book, The Extended Mind, and recommend it. It clarified for me not only some things about working and learning, but also some of what has been so challenging during the pandemic, the ways my brain surprised me with its skips, jumps, failures.) Mostly, I read short stories and poems. The poetry that most compels me right now is small in its lines, compressed, straightforward yet rich with mysteries.

my spirit left me when I was banished my tears for those I love are no use living alone I am easily moved losing my way seldom helps what is this depression about this quandry I know too well who will come here in the future and experience what I feel

—Liu Tsung-Yuan, trans. Red Pine

The short stories I read were (are) by authors dead and neglected, or at least underappreciated: Sylvia Townsend Warner, William Plomer, Carol Emshwiller, James Purdy: writers I've read for a long time, repeatedly, writers I return to. (I need to get back to reading the Men on Men anthologies, but I paused because I was finding it too depressing. Similarly, Sarah Schulman's extraordinary Let the Record Show: A Political History of ACT UP New York 1987-1993. I can only dip my toes in that past before I am drowning. 

I got from the library Gayl Jones's first novel, Corregidora, which I realized I had never read, even though I thought I had — almost twenty years ago now, I devoured Eva's Man, The Healing, and Mosquito all more or less at once, a great (overwhelming) reading experience but one that did not allow much absorption of the novels' individual wonders. (Mosquito, being a behemoth, stands strongest in my memory. It's something of a crime that this novel is not more heralded.) I remember that I got each of the books from the remainder shelves at Borders, books that were only a few dollars each, cast off. I shed them from my shelves when I moved to New Jersey in 2007 and could only bring a small portion of the books I owned. I'm glad our university library has a few of the books, so Corregidora is now here with me, and I hope to read it soon and perhaps also to reacquaint myself with those other novels that had such an effect on me before, but which I read as if gulping air after nearly drowning. I wonder now what reading exprience the books will provide, in this different world, different time, different self; drowning still, but needing different air.  Jones has a new novel coming out soon, Palmares, her first since Mosquito, as well as other books that will be released in the next few years by Beacon — poetry, short stories, a novel previously only available in German, another unpublished novel.

More from this summer: I discovered I now appreciate and even hunger for the writing of Eileen Myles. In other years, other times, I have felt their writing unengaging, but this summer I read a lot of their poems, essays, and interviews. Like Gertrude Stein, the more you read of Myles, the more the writing's pleasures and powers open up. Perhaps I will read their Inferno: A Poet's Novel and then I will have read a novel, finally, again.

And Andrew Wyeth's paintings, particularly those of the Kuerner farm; indeed, the book Wyeth at Kuerners was one I returned to again and again this summer, especially for the sketches and watercolors, the simplicity of imagery, the beauty of Wyeth's vision finding its way.

All of this suggests a stripping down, and that seems right to me for this time, at this time. I do not know what it portends for language, for as I said I have not written well in months, and the beauties I have found in these months have not been verbal. Words, in some way or another, are tied to time for me, attached to the flow of memory, and as these strange times turn memory more into evaporation than flow, words refuse any tether, any structure I try to set them in. How does one describe a painted frame of a Brakhage film? The description is always less than the image, and one image extracted is infinitely less than the flow of the whole.

(I held off on letting this post out into the world because it felt so scattered, ephemeral, solipsistic. It is that, but I also have a nostalgia for the early days of blogging, when people wrote scattered, ephemeral, solipsistic posts and let them float through the world like scattered bits of paper in a breeze. Perhaps this is why I have been reading so much New Narrative writing in the last year or so, why I have been fascinated with writers like Kate Zambreno, writers of broken pieces of self creatively put together into something not whole — deliberately not whole — honoring the jagged parts, the missing puzzle pieces, the pebbles caught in the flow of the river.)

(Fragments that refuse an ending, even the possibility of an ending. There is no ending, there is only the flow.)

(Everything is change.)

(Are we afraid?)

(Dip toes in.)