Memorial Reading for Leslie Scalapino

On Monday night, a memorial reading for Leslie Scalapino was held at the St Mark’s Poetry Project, in the presence of Tom White, Leslie’s husband, and organized by E. Tracy Grinnell and Charles Bernstein (the latter’s contribution is online here.) A most moving event, with some 20 participants and culminating in the showing Konrad Steiner’s video of Leslie Scalapino reading from The Dihedrons Gazelle-Dihedrals Zoom,   (the still above is from that video). My contribution is below; you can check out the videos here.

For Leslie Scalapino

On our first meeting we had lunch at George’s at the Cove in La Jolla, California. I cannot remember which one of us had picked the place, but it was perfect & much like Leslie herself: quiet, elegant, classy — yet unpretentious. We sat on land and looked out at the sea, the food was excellent, we took our time, I learned or was taught Leslie’s silences — & it felt good & right to have those silences among us (or around us, not ‘between’ us), they never felt uncomfortable but were always rich & easy places to think on what had just been said and where to go from there. Where we went was to a third geographical place: deserts — as we discovered our total fascination & love for those places that look empty but are full of life upon closer inspection, & so, as I remember it, Leslie talked Gobi & I talked Sahara, with the American landmass on our left & the Pacific ocean on our right. First day of a friendship that does not end with Leslie’s disappearance.

In Poems for the Millennium, the first quote of hers we use in the commentary on her work is: “Make writing that is held to present-time and does not arise from memory. It is realism that can occur only as the writing. It has no other existence.” Working thus clearly through the tradition of Gertrude Stein but connecting it to the uncertainties of this postmodern moment, Scalapino, by fragmenting syntax & line, created a “stripped down bone-spare lyrical writing” — but a lyricism that continually undercuts itself (many of her poems are punctuated almost exclusively with the dash, a typographical sign that both severs & connects, thus questioning relationship). Working out of an anguished awareness of Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle (i.e.: the act of perception alters what is being perceived), Scalapino continually questions the very possibility of meaning in the relation between language & the world. (“Writing simply has no connection to reality. /The actual event is entirely absent from it in the present,” she says.) And yet, her attention stays firmly, even obsessively, on the world around us-whose political & social violence & psychological skewing lend the writing an uncanny “realism.” Throughout her work, writing & thinking about writing are seamlessly folded into each other, or, as Leslie herself has noted — with a sense, too, of realism’s mysteries: “You don’t know where something’s coming from. It appears to becoming from outside you or from inside yourself, but what you appear to be creating is actually occurring out there seen as if under your control. You want to disturb that control. It is the unfolding of events which actually occur, but you don’t know where they are from or from what focal point they’re emanating.”

And as I speak I realize that there are two things we shared and loved: deserts and dashes. Dashes and deserts — and this is what, in honor of Leslie, I’ll need to investigate more deeply, i.e. what is the relationship between the two? What does a dash in a desert mean, and how did that desert get into this dash? I may discover this rereading Scalapino’s work (sweet travail ahead!), but however I do it, that work will be dedicated to Leslie, and will be a place to continue our conversation, constellated as it was by silences and absences, but always, always intense and enriching.

Here, the opening stanzas of the poem (from her book Considering how exaggerated music is) Jerry Rothenberg and I chose for inclusion in volume 2 of the Poems for the Millennium anthology:

INSTEAD OF AN ANIMAL

Seeing as I was willing to give up my seat for the person who said
he had reserved it, first wetting out of my excitement or my worry
or perhaps heat, not only the seat but obviously my own clothes,
it is no wonder that the person was willing to sit wallowing in it;
in that perfumes are made to come from the anal glands of animals.

Except for seeing women suckling in public-one time,
two women were suckling at the teats of the nursing mother; the
infant being left to whine while the mother endured these females
feeding off of her. With what concern to her infant when the adult
women had finished with her-otherwise I don’t mind.

Some adolescents visiting us, having been weaned, wouldn’t
guess that adolescents were being allowed
to suckle at their mother’s breasts
and expected her to open up her dress in public
letting the as yet unweaned 12 or I 5 year old be seen nursing.

Stranger when it is the male opening his shirt in public,
and applying an infant to his chest as if he had breasts.
Not even necessary for the infant to have the nipple.
The children let out a few cries, the man puts them up to let
them suck. Or as easily applies them to his back or his thighs.

Some children of seven to ten years of age or so
were letting each other open their shirts and dresses
and suck on each other’s nipples.
No matter that they had flat chests, the rest of the children
clamoring to be put on the older children’s breasts.

In that the infants, as yet too helpless to make the animal
yield to a demand to nurse them,
and, owing to the mothers’ anxiety on this matter,
the infants were overseen though they were allowed to eat
at a wet nurse’s teat.

Asked why these children of 7 or 8 or so had swollen bellies
so that a child’s belly
would resemble the hard belly of a cow or of a mare,
they said
that it was because these children had the habit of swallowing air.

Instead of an animal, we got an old rag that was rancid-
smelling as if it were an animal.
You know how one can want to roll on it.
You know how one can want to roll on it.
You know how one can want to roll on it.

(…)

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