Gerald L. Bruns


       “Are you acquainted with Vienna?” Felix inquired.
       “Vienna,” said the doctor, “the bed into which the common people climb, docile with toil, and out of which the nobility fling themselves, ferocious with dignity—I do, but not so well but that I remember some of it still. I remember young Austrian boys going to school, flocks of quail they were, sitting out their recess in different spots in the sun, rosy-cheeked, bright-eyed, with damp rosy mouths, smelling of the herd childhood, facts of history glimmering in their minds like sunlight, soon to be lost, soon to be forgotten, degraded into proof. Youth is cause, effect is age; so with the thickening of the neck we get data.                                                      
                                                                                                     — Djuna Barnes, Nightwood



On several occasions Karen Mac Cormack has said that her poetic career began with the reading, at age sixteen, of Djuna Barnes’s Nightwood, a novel published by Faber & Faber, under T. S. Eliot’s imprimatur, in 1936. Nightwood is a work whose prose (like Doctor Matthew O’Connor’s glorious talk, cited here in the epigraph) disengages itself from the grammar of consecutive discourse, including especially the logical progressions of narrative. Nightwood does not fail at these things, but it interrupts them. Barnes had difficulty getting her book published, revising it several times in order to give it the semblance of Aristotelian virtues that novels—even avant-garde ones—were (and are) still expected to possess. Ulysses and Mrs. Dalloway are, for all their formal innovations, arguably more integrated than Nightwood, with its peculiar, edgy, often sarcastic voice that prefers wild commentary to mere storytelling:

       She did not smile, though the moment he spoke, she placed him. She closed her eyes, and Felix, who had been looking into them intently because of their mysterious and shocking blue, found himself seeing them still faintly clear and timeless behind the lids—the long unqualified range in the iris of wild beasts who have not tamed the focus down to meet the human eye.
        The woman who presents herself to the spectator as a “picture” forever arranged, is for the contemplative mind the chiefest danger. Sometimes one meets a woman who is beast turning human. Such a person’s every movement will reduce to an image of a forgotten experience; a mirage of an eternal wedding cast on the racial memory; as insupportable a joy as would be the vision of an eland coming down an aisle of trees, chapleted with orange blossoms and bridal veil, a hoof raised in the economy of fear, stepping in the trepidation of flesh that will become myth; as the unicorn is neither man nor beast deprived, but human hunger pressing its breast to its prey.
       Such a woman is the infected carrier of the past—before her the structure of our head and jaws ache—we feel that we could eat her, she who is eaten death returning, for only then do we put our face close to the blood on the lips of our forefathers.[1]

One can imagine Henry James admiring this passage, but also puzzling over “a woman who is beast turning human,” a metamorphosis that reverses Ovid in a way that a Surrealist might envy. Her “every movement will reduce to an image of a forgotten experience.” It’s hard to picture what “an image of forgotten experience” might look like. I wouldn’t have imagined “a mirage of an eternal wedding cast on the racial memory” (reference, neither the first nor last, is to Felix’s Jewishness) complete with an eland (a species of antelope) in a bridal procession, with “a hoof raised in the economy of fear,” as if the marriage ceremony were resolving into a sacrificial one. The third paragraph in the citation is one of my favorites in all of modern literature. If you ask, how do these sentences hang together (adding up to a portrait of a lady we would do well to avoid but never do: “we feel we could eat her, she who is eaten death returning”), it takes some time to answer. One could begin by putting the question to Gertrude Stein, who was perhaps the first to explore the ways words could be made to form dissonant yet self-contained portraits:


           A little called anything shows shudders
           Come and say what prints all day. A whole few watermelon. There is no pope.
           No cut in pennies and little dressing and choose wide soles and little spats really little spices.
           A little lace makes boils. This is not true.
Gracious of gracious and a stamp a blue green white bow a blue green lean, lean on the top.
           If it is absurd then it is leadish and nearly set in where there is a tight head.
           A peaceful life to arise her, noon and moon and moon. A letter a cold sleeve a blanket a shaving house and nearly the best a regular window.
           Nearer in fairy sea, nearer and farther, show white has lime in sight, show a stitch of ten. Count, count more so that thicker and thicker is leaning.
           I hope she has her cow. Bidding a wedding, widening received treading, a little leading mention nothing.
           Cough out cough out in the leather and really feather it is not for.
           Please could, please could, jam it not plus more sit in when.[2]

I think that the kinship between Djuna Barnes and Gertrude Stein is intimate and complementary. Provisionally one could say that Barnes remains within the horizon of the predicate—subjects, verbs, and objects doing their work of mediation, however digressively and to whatever many strange purposes: her reticulated prose retains the form if not always the content of what philosophers call “aboutness”; whereas parataxis—the defeat of wholeness and hierarchies of every sort—is internal to Stein’s phrasings, which interrupt the discursive operations that integrate small things into large. Gertrude Stein’s is an insubordinate poetics of the little and the discrete (“a little piece, a little piece please” [W337]), and this applies to her words and phrases as well as to the world of dainty Pauline, with her “blue green white bow.” Djuna Barnes’s meanwhile is a poetics of the long, slow, amplification of particulars, as in the medieval (or is it gothic?) tapestry that the narrator weaves as a gloss on Felix’s gripping encounter with Robin Vote’s animal-iris eyes.

Karen Mac Cormack’s Quill Driver (1989) is a text that seems to me to split the differences (and explore the family resemblances) between Barnes and Stein, and in the bargain it opens up a conceptual context that helps us to experience certain kinds of writing that are, even now, more familiar than understood. Here, for example, is the first paragraph (if paragraph is the word) of Mac Cormack’s “Reunion the Reproduction”:

Further alive. Perhaps when the heart stops beating the tiredness leaves. There are questions but not obvious ones, any other yellow centre. The furor she caused in Italy, buying daisies for a non-funereal purpose. Two women equally shocked. She told me other colours, occasionally the light would fail. Despite assorted revolutions we order our lives past, present, future, to apply to what is ongoing out of the tempest. If we line these up there’s still the one, two, three of it but not Van Gogh (QD31).

“Reunion the Reproduction” contains twenty-two such paragraphs of varying length. Like the writings of Barnes and Stein, it lays transparency to rest but not intelligibility. The task of the reader is (among other things) to understand how such self-interrupting sentences are connected, or at least to experience the ways in which the passage does not just break down into mere slivers. (Nonlinearity is not mere dispersal or diffusion.) Close reading in Mac Cormack’s case reveals many small internal coherences such as references to death, color, correctness, order (and, by implication, anarchy)—we narrate our lives according to Aristotle’s rules, but what if we did so according to Van Gogh’s, color and texture trumping continuity and point? As philosophers of complex systems have explained, chaos is paradoxically a condition of orderly arrangements. Foreigners and the weather refuse to act predictably, but if we follow the two carefully as they proceed we will see patterns develop, even if no reason (or future) can be assigned to them. Rationality is not rule-governed behavior but the ability to negotiate turbulence (an ability Aristotle called phronesis, or practical reason). The coastline of California has a form that fractalists can explore in detail, but it duplicates nothing but itself. A world of random particles can only be described by reproducing it piece by piece. Death to universals.

Karen Mac Cormack’s Quill Driver situates itself within complexities of this sort. For example, I read Mac Cormack’s work as an ongoing exploration of Jean-François Lyotard’s anarchic conception of the phrase.[3] Phrase is the French term for sentence as well as our term for grammatical relations beneath the level of a complete thought, but Lyotard takes it to be the (indefinable) basic unit of language on the hither side of every conceivable grammar, logic, genre, or norm of discourse, these things simply being some of the “phrase regimens” that phrases make possible, but none of these regimes can say what a phrase is. There is no metaphrase. To be sure, a phrase implies a saying of something to someone about something (the “phrase universe”), but nothing can be said about a phrase in general except that it is capable of linking up with other phrases, and there are multiple and heterogeneous forms of linkages, some of them syntactical (subject-verb-object), some logical (if-then), some propositional (s is p), some hermeneutical (this as that), and some narrative (this then that), but Lyotard’s point is that there are (indefinitely) more forms of enchainment than those we learn to use in school (reasoning, describing, questioning, narrating). Phrasing is not systematic construction. We inhabit a universe of phrases that are rhizomatically proliferating and tangling like crabgrass. There is no first or final phrase—“The paradox of the last phrase (or of the last silence), which is also the paradox of the series, should not give x  the vertigo of what cannot be phrased (which is also called the fear of death), but rather the irrefutable conviction that phrasing is endless. For a phrase to be the last one, another one is needed to declare it, and it is then not the last one. At least, the paradox should give x both this vertigo and this conviction. –Never mind that the last phrase is that last one that x says! –No, it is the last one that x has as its direct or ‘current’ address.”[4]

Lyotard’s application in our present context lies in his conception of the pure negative freedom of phrasing: “To link is necessary, but how to link is not” (D§102). A link is a gap between phrases, which we fill willy-nilly with many things, including passage phrases, but without being able to close the gap. For example:

The phrase that expresses the passage operator employs the conjunction and (and so forth, and so on). This term signals a simple addition, the apposition of one term with another, nothing more. Auerbach (1946: ch. 2 and 3) turns this into a characteristic of “modern” style, paratax, as opposed to classical syntax. Conjoined by and, phrases or events follow each other, but their succession does not obey a categorical order (because; if, then; in order to; although…). Joined to the preceding one by and, a phrase arises out of nothingness to link up with it. Paratax thus connotes the abyss of Not-Being which opens between phrases, and it stresses the surprise that something begins when what is said is said. And is the conjunction that most allows the constitutive discontinuity (or oblivion) of time to threaten, while defying it through its equally constitutive continuity (or retention)…. Instead of and, and assuring the same paratactic function, there can be a comma, or nothing (D§100).

Paratax: the phrase of modernism. This is a crucial paragraph, if paragraph is the word, because it describes Lyotard’s own poetics, which is to write, not books, but “notes,” “fragments,” “sketches,” “rudiments,” “lessons,” “discussions” (these are the terms he applies to his writings). The point is to avoid “big talk.” The structure of The Differend, for example, is segmental and performative rather than simply informational. In his vocabulary, his writing is a form of paganism. A pagan is someone who thinks, judges, acts, and links phrases together without criteria.[5] (“Pagan,” from pagus: boundary, frontier, or edge. A pagan is someone who traverses these things.) In Lyotard’s sense, Gertrude Stein, Djuna Barnes, and Karen Mac Cormack are pagan poets phrasing outside the limits of regimens favored by logic, linguistics, Aristotelian poetics, structuralist poetics (among other formalisms), and most philosophies of language, not to mention current critical methods and numerous poetical schools, with their suspicion of opaque language. Writing is, as Lyotard says, une affaire d’enchaînement de phrases that leaves us open to complexity. It is the opposite of such phrasings as calculative reasoning or representational thinking, which are, in contrast to paganism, redeemed beforehand by their formal procedures, which simply give us what we want—framing rules, connecting ends and means, constructing models, forming concepts, putting things in their proper places, producing narratives. Pagans love category mistakes, or in other words are satirical with respect to forms of correctness.

Here is a portion of Karen Mac Cormack’s “Sleep is Incurable in Our Lifetime”:

Serenity is unpopular, it distracts from the major ambushes of exterior concerns. Never a bugle boy. The manufacture of white gauze, its disposal after first time use. Then there was the birthday we went to tattoo you. A flesh wound. Deemed eligible, the bank account provides a sense of style (so might a fedora in turbulence). It’s become more than six months ago I referred to another sequence of daring. Do men blink more than women? Certain reflexes seem to count as memory in nerve, muscle and example: the cat looks up to a drawing of its counterpart losing feathers. A title doesn’t confer talent conveyed. Calvados from a snifter late into what they also knew last century. First sip. Not implant but tenacious hamstrings. Complaint of content—its lack thereof or from. An elegant suppleness should be consumed relatively young. Orgasms aren’t oblique on the morning of, or in the night. Sex is precision. “No local passengers carried between stations marked A”. It’s froth on the inside that’s dangerous. Whist, the silent card game…. The dead don’t borrow from us as we do from them. How different is brooch from broach. The cat rolls on flowers but doesn’t crush the print, as in cotton, not description of the auto-erotic. In that chair this conversation, a utilizable not employable table. How tender in twelve? Supplant this with the word terse, or focus on all the visible points simultaneously. Light doesn’t blister itself but the epidermis becomes disorganised. Pallor, sometimes misconstrued as a manifestation of missing (QD18).

This poem continues for another several sentences before breaking off—Mac Cormack’s poems stop but do not end. Like Dr. O’Connor’s monologues, each of her poems is cumulative rather than conclusive and could still be unfolding somewhere in a parallel universe. What is compelling about “Sleep in Incurable in Our Lifetime” are the subtle, fragmentary interactions between one phrase and another. There is a kind of echo principle at work, not so much at the level of sound (but by all means keep your ears open) as at the level of reference, perception, and concept: phrasing here is a kind of thinking (without criteria)—thinking that proceeds by the proliferation of phrases rather than by some linear principle of internal necessity (phrases do not add up to statements, except under severe coercion). I’m not sure why serenity is unpopular, but I know serene people are less shaken by “ambushes of exterior concerns” than I am, and maybe serenity is just another form of superciliousness. Coincidentally just the other day I was listening to the Andrews Sisters sing their great World War II hit, “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy [of Company B].” A bugle boy is certainly a source of external ambushes, as for example at 5:00 a.m. Meanwhile bandages made of gauze had better be discarded “after first time use.” Amateur tattoo artists are apt to cause a “flesh wounds” requiring, etc. “Do men blink more often than women?” It depends on who we think is more reflexive in “nerve, muscle and example.” Talent trumps pedigree, except in the hierarchies of academic life. “First sip” is of “Calvados [a splendid cognac] from a snifter late.” “Orgasms aren’t oblique” because “Sex is precision.” “Sex is precision” is at once erotic counsel, an elegant piece of graffiti, and a philosophical theory. “Not implant but tenacious hamstrings” may be for all I know a source of sexual precision. A tenacious hamstring sounds erotic to me. Implants are for the young.

Players only love you when they’re playing: a traditional hermeneutical way to respond to pagan poetry is to appropriate a phrase rather than to try to decipher its intention—this means that one makes the phrase one’s own by taking it now this way, now that, the way the ancient rabbis used to read scriptural verses: not consecutively, but by linking them with verses from other (sometimes distant) parts of the Bible, finding echoes in words and even parts of words. So reading becomes itself une affaire d’enchaînement de phrases, reweaving texts into new networks of phrasing. “An elegant suppleness should be consumed relatively young”: such consumption could apply here equally well to cognac or to sex, although if so the line is apt to make an old man scowl. I’m sure Mac Cormack didn’t have this reading in mind. Hermeneutics says that the rule of reading to be followed is that of charity, or the invention of truth conditions—reading does not decipher but improvises supporting language (or contexts) that enables the phrase in question to come out true. For some phrases this is easy: “Whist, the silent card game,” fulfills the conditions of a true statement for the same reasons that “Chess, the silent board game” would. Likewise “The dead don’t borrow from us as we do from them” (QD18): an apercu worthy of The Tatler. “‘No local passengers carried between stations marked A’” is true just as a rule is true if enforced and obeyed; anyhow the phrase is a citation, which technically cannot be false (“British intelligence reported that ‘Iraq has weapons of mass destruction’” is a true statement about false intelligence, and also, therefore, a classic piece of official rhetoric).

But Mac Cormack eludes even the most charitable hermeneutics. Most of her phrases play with truth conditions, multiplying rather than just fulfilling them: “Light doesn’t blister itself but the epidermis becomes disorganized. Pallor, sometimes misconstrued as a manifestation of missing.” My counsel is to construe these sentences lightly, keeping to one’s breast thoughts of sunburn and anemia, allowing the phrases to percolate their nuances, since the super-formation of nuances is pretty much the poetics at work here. Appropriation, after all, is a form of regimentation, settling what is mobile into place—an execution of nuances in both the formal and the lethal sense. As Lyotard says (in a section of The Differend devoted interestingly to Gertrude Stein’s phrases), “A phrase is not mysterious, it is clear. It says what it means to say. No ‘subject’ receives it in order to interpret it. Just as no ‘subject’ makes it (in order to say something). It calls forth its addressor and addressee, and they come to take their places in its universe” (D67). This is good anthropological advice: the idea is to learn how to inhabit the milieu of this strange language until one feels at home—Clifford Geertz calls it “becoming real,” feeling the purpose and pleasure of the Balinese cockfight, no longer having to justify it. Explanations have to come to an end somewhere. The point is to change oneself so as to experience the thing as it is. And if you keep changing, so will the poem. Think of reading as a practice of musical accompaniment.

Pagan poetry is frequently the work of great comic writers, owing perhaps to the anarchy of it: unregimented phrases are usually (and unusually) funny:

Furniture isn’t everything. Did Eve enjoy the first orgasm¿ Accompaniment ends in isolation from the event. Then dovetail. Percussion in the anteroom to conger the doctors [“conger”? Conger is a species of eel. “Congeries” are aggregates of heterogeneous elements, so “conger” used as a verb would mean “to gather together.” But one can also imagine percussion in the anteroom conjuring doctors—conceivably a more efficient way of getting to see them than we presently have.]. A bale of direct contraries (QD15).

Which is most interesting. From tricycle to try sexual (QD23).

(Could someone be quadrisexual? Perhaps a quadropedophile.)

Inheritance is the cleaning process our forebears foreswore, occupied as they were, in each other’s esteem. Not that society is polite, it is rude to those who don’t agree with its particular modes of savagery. I don’t wear pearls. All those articles of torture. A man once slept in a room with a cow’s head suspended by transparent fishing line above the mattress on the floor. Hopefully height is not crucial as I don’t want to lie. There’s the biography minus the kittens. Why was the amethyst thought to prevent intoxication? (QD37)

Reconstruct the spiral stare (QD39).

Who invented the first commercial weed killer? (QD53).

Of course, in a certain sense it is a distortion to cite these lines out of their contexts, for doing so subverts their resistance to interpretation, because in context each phrase works as an interruption (a shift from one context or register to another)—“Who invented the first commercial weed killer?” is, all by itself, without complication, but as situated it pops like a gun:

An aberration in the earth’s crust, for example. Who invented the first commercial weed killer? Recitals. Written in front of you not as a door but a latch, now lift it (QD53).

Interruption: we tend to be bothered by interruptions, but they are crucial to sociability, as is brevity, which interruption makes possible. (Recall Maurice Blanchot: “I wonder if we have reflected enough upon the various significations of this pause that alone permits speech to be constituted as conversation, and even as speech. We end up by confining someone who speaks without pause. (Let us recall Hitler’s terrible monologues. And every head of state participates in the same dictare, the repetition of an imperious monologue, when he enjoys the power of being the only one to speak and, rejoicing in the possession of his high solitary word, imposes it without restraint as a superior and supreme speech upon others.”))[6] One wonders what Blanchot would make of Dr. O’Connor’s monologues, those oratorios of purple gusto (“…but the interruption was quite useless. Once the doctor had his audience—and he got his audience by the simple device of pronouncing at the top of his voice (at such moments as irritable and possessive as a maddened woman’s) some of the more boggish and biting of the shorter early Saxon verbs—nothing could stop him” [N14]).


            Gertrude Stein and Djuna Barnes have distinctive voices. Karen Mac Cormack is polyvocal, ranging from an avocal or neutral voice in which “no one speaks” to complex heterophonies culled from the histories of languages, the writings of ancestors, as well as the idiomatic expressions of old and new forms of popular culture.

At the avocal boundary, Quirks and Quillets (1991)—tricks and quibbles, quirks of fate and how we evade them—is made of forty “sentences,” each one occupying its own page (so that an experience of white space is part of the experience of the poem):

The untried decibel of seamless hose unhurried sentence its adjectives the chosen ladder geological manoeuvre or landing strip spangles the same man connected paillettes cramp the page’s reproduction not ours or the level’s pinafore before piano trudging words ahead of their names an algebra of what is scene momentous underneath (QQ9).

Here the challenge would be to know how to read this poem aloud—where (or whether) to introduce pauses that would shape the sentence rhythmically if not semantically. (Karen Mac Cormack reads the pieces in this volume fairly rapidly in a cadence that avoids any hint of prosody: no pausing for emphases, so the poem ceases to be made of lines.)[7] The semantics of this particular “sentence” lies in “its adjectives” (“trudging words ahead of their names” like “seamless hose,” “unhurried sentence,” “geological manoeuvre,” “landing strip,” “the same man,” “connected paillettes”). The poem contains only one transitive verb, “cramp,” and possibly not even that, since a “cramp” is more often felt as a noun. (“Scene,” to be sure, implies “seen.”) In truth Quirks and Quillets is not, strictly speaking, made of sentences, but of proliferations of phrases within loose, unpunctuated periods. Proliferation here is an event of complexity, an anarchic defeat of unity, structure, closure, and point (but not, curiously, of an internal play):

Foregoing impartial likeness threads drop where the thermometer left off it only matters to someone else that the door is closed upon leaving for now the proliferation of exits is grief enough arms in these leaves drying an open solitude in increments the belief that there’s paint on walls paintings patching anomalies or marbles in the mouth a fast-growing background attention span in the form of everyday objects of a giving culture basting corrects this sink is full (QQ47).

Notice that the phrases here all make a kind of sense—“Foregoing impartial likeness,” “threads drop where the thermometer left off,” “it only matters to someone else that the door is closed upon leaving,” “for now the proliferation of exits is grief enough,” “arms in these leaves [read it as a verb] an open solitude in increments,” “the belief that there’s paint on walls,” “paintings patching anomalies,” “marbles in the mouth,” “a fast-growing background,” “attention span in the form of everyday objects of a given culture,” “basting corrects [dehydration],” “this sink is full.”  The poem appropriates the semantic ingredients that go into sentences—the readymade enchaînements that make possible everyday speech (about “everyday objects of a given culture”). The phrases of Quirks and Quillets are not poetical, but they are tricky and evasive (no pinning them down). The point is that each one (almost each one) is recognizable: these are phrases that, but for a twist here and there, we ourselves might have used.

            After all, where do phrases come from? From our various discursive environments, which Karen Mac Cormack seeks to reconstruct and explore by investigating several centuries of linguistic usage as well as the idioms of contemporary popular culture. Her poetry is, among other things, an archeology of language, as the title of Quirks and Quillets suggests—it takes a good deal of searching among dictionaries to find the word quillet: thanks to Shakespeare it is still occasionally cited as an archaism. The point is that phrases, whether contemporary or archaic, are found objects. They are not products or creations—they cannot be traced back to an origin. Phrases are, in Heidegger’s lingo, “at hand”: they have an equipmental rather than objective mode of being—that is, we don’t hold them up for inspection but rather put them into play, which is what Lyotard means by phrasing or enchainment. What Karen Mac Cormack does is alter the field of play by citing (and rephrasing) texts from both past and present.

Recall the concept of poetic diction. This was, in the eighteenth century, a circle drawn around our vocabulary that excluded certain words as flatly unpoetic: duck, toe, fart, potato, intestine—make your own list. Modernism did not reject the idea of poetic diction, but it enlarged the circle so that its center would be everywhere and its circumference inaccessible: hence “etherized upon a table.” The purpose of much of Karen Mac Cormack’s recent work has been to develop new forms of poetic diction out of found texts. In Fit to Print (1998), written in collaboration with Alan Halsey, the found texts are newspaper items—news stories, advertisements, notices, but also forms of layout that makes the page the basic unit of verse:


roots dangler lowdown upstart
drawback cocksure live
oral stroller
aggregates anoint conundrum
balanced marshiest oasis
outsourcing deliverables
virtual courseware
sharpshooter's clone
estop “Hurricane buys site”
now inhale finalize
fermi down and roar
recovery in times of duress
loans abstrusity
hard-to-get comparison
as if a mistake could “improve”
to encash outdo
day-to-day tread
subject crop weedy
greetings uncouple prefer (FP35)

A footnote explains that the title of this poem was originally a typo in the Toronto Globe & Mail, and that “Hurricane buys site” was a “headline for a Globe & Mail article stating that Hurricane Hydrocarbons Ltd. Wins right to become major oil producer in Kazakhstan in 1996” (FP61). Likewise Mac Cormack’s At Issue (2001) is, she says, “a series of poems most of which (but not all) utilize the vocabulary and spelling found in magazines of a diverse nature”—Vogue, for example, and others even more strictly “geared to a female readership” (AI9):


Putting shape into getting without perfect in a culture that doesn’t think, pumps up, the two traits go at the face of rate themselves, cropped by impasse, express your monochromatics from within, discover it blushes, reduce the signs to surface, sharing space in a new high-tech fabric, the pale face extra—prevent every day year after year, retreat returns by filling out advance  notice, since seeing is oxygen more supple, sways, just take graceful, tilt feature-controls are big, stable rattles accept different speeds sing, sprawl-moguls seized a story, raking in celebrity, heat-activated genre, hands full turned, loops removable gusseted, postpone television, revelations, introspection, an assemblage not incidentally imposed, cross-over success, so many boxes yet smashes toward toward (AI17).

Two points: The exhibition of found texts is a form of satire—the phrases of the text are jumbled in a way that exposes (and so defeats) their rhetorical purpose (“express your monochromatics from within”). At Issue is, among other things, an essay on cultural narcissism (culling its language from publications like Self). But perhaps the formal point is more interesting. By appropriating her vocabulary and spelling from found texts, Karen Mac Cormack accomplishes two (paradoxically competing) things: (1) in the spirit of modernism, she enlarges the field of poetic diction to include the language of everyday life (whatever its virtues or comedy). However, at the same time, (2) in the spirit of traditional poetic diction (as well as in the spirit of such writing communities as Oulipo or the “chance operations” of John Cage and Jackson Mac Low) she subjects her writing to a system of arbitrary constraint (no phrases allowed that don’t appear in Self). Recourse to source texts or found language is a poetics that subjects the writing subject to an objective language (or linguistic field). It is a poetics of finitude that combines the openness of chance with the confinement of originary stipulations: no saying what has not, in some sense, already been said, but doing so without repetition—imagine citations taking the form not of quotations but of collage. The idea seems to be to find a new form of originality, one that is more rhetorical than romantic because it is a form of writing that interrupts and recomposes what has already been written and not a form of creation ex nihilo. As I said earlier, language is not internal to the writing subject but is an environment of phrases capable of open-ended redistributions. The crucial point is that these environments are local rather than global: one writes from the standpoint of inhabitation within discursive communities. Certainly one can make fun of the idiom of Vogue and Self, but the appropriation of these idioms is also a form of redemption, because now one experiences their peculiar comedy, richness, and even utopian potential.

John Cage perfected the form of the found text after having invented the mesostic by “writing through” modernist texts like Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, using Joyce’s name as the spine along which his (Joyce’s) text is reassembled:

     wroth with twone nathandJoe
                                           sOlid man
                      that the humptYhillhead of humself
                         is at the knoCkout
                                      in thE park[8]

Writing through found texts is, as Cage argued, a way of escaping the confinements of subjectivity, in which confinement means repetition, self-imitation, the articulations of style, identity, and tradition, and where escape means bringing oneself arbitrarily under the discipline of the environment of another’s language in which one is (anthropologically) free to explore, expand, and rearrange. Here the transfer of composition is from a Chomskyan linguistic competence, in which the subject is able to produce an infinite number of original sentences from the deep structure of linguistic rules, to the pragmatic discourse that appropriates and renews what is given in the discourse that constitutes a social and cultural world. A poetics of the lively surface of historical particulars in this event replaces a structuralist poetics of innate rules and conventions that mechanically reproduce a history of universal forms.

Found texts are archeological artifacts. Mac Cormack didn’t find her texts by accident. Implexures (2003) is an exploration of her ancestry, which evidently goes back to Elizabethan times (when the word “implexure,” meaning fold or folding, was still, if only rarely, in use). The poem is in part a series of “historical letters” made of heterogeneous voices from many sources and periods—“To absorb a history of family through the centuries requires a forebear’s attention to facts and no fear of paper” (I10). The voices (and years) cannot always (and never easily) be identified or distinguished from one another—“‘Language as primary environment’ applied to re-reading letters (one’s own and others’) the decades interleaved on every surface to blur and redefine the living in & perception’s architecture” (I44-45)—except perhaps for the (italicized) letters home from a modern young woman traveling to places like Mexico, Italy, Greece, and Turkey:

I enjoy traveling solo. There are problems, but they are not insurmountable. The Italian and Greek men are totally perplexed by single women going around the world & it seems to unnerve them that there are so many (I53).

But mostly the language is incremental in its phrasing, as if a collage (or perhaps “implexions”: entanglements, interweavings, interfolds) were being constructed from ancestral fragments:

Form at certain taverns never documentary during their scramble. To the west spell jeopardy and drop to lower ground rasp’s running with a lantern. Later through the front door, down the hall and out again, coach, frills adhere to it. Horn of boxwood and in existence a diary usually is a provoking document. Hovered very much to the fore and exasperating. Consent withheld and why? Every record drawn a blank and so impossible to forgive her being a Perfect Lady. Drifting coming on to the answering mountain made no picture. Into three editions and many infidelities (the former begot missiles). An independent line…freedom of outlook (not one but two bribes of peerage failed) and then the Repeal of the Salt Tax. Meanwhile, diligent in her Latin and “very new-fangled of my Italian,” she didn’t object to his taking a sprogue now and then. A “nip” appeared in the pit and he was then alone. Trappings beyond perennial drain, the dusk, in his chair, but no marker or tablet, it being December what flowers could there have been? (I19)

Again: a portrait of a lady—but as in Gertrude Stein’s portraits the subject here is integrated into her environment, and so the collage is of a time and place and not simply of a subject, meaning that the references are local and temporal, embedded in lost contexts, and thus outside the glossing capabilities of modern readers—and most libraries, although industrial-strength research will turn up some interesting connections: “sprogue,” for example, is hard to find anywhere except in Finnegans Wake (507.19: “A strangely striking part of speech for the hottest worked word of ur sprogue.”). Every dictionary I know of rejects it. The context in Mac Cormack’s poem suggests that it could mean “a drink now and then,” but Joyce’s context makes it more likely a word for language (sprog is Danish for language, so ur sprogue would be something like Ursprache). Sprogue is also probably a Joycean pun (sprog, brogue). Diligent polyglots won’t mind a pun now and then, or a gyre and gimble in the wabe, nor will Space Rogues (or “sprogues,” as they call themselves). Sprogue is a common surname, evidently originally Cornish, but it is more interesting as a phantom noun—a found word that eludes lexicography. (Karen Mac Cormack tells me the word means “jaunt,” an aimless stroll.)

            Speaking of dictionaries, one section of Implexures is called “DEVELOPMENTAL DICTIONARY (from 1967 to circa 1982).” It is a text in two parts. Part Two consists of what looks like a random series of words:

contiguity induction chimerical inimical didactic vicissitude pithy maxim
aphorism portentously sedition sedulous irascible specious plausible esoteric
contrite intellect intellectual faculty usurp sagacious discernment artifice
contrivance negate glaucous rapacious respite retrieve vituperative obsequious
euphemism ascribe disparate acumen ingenuous expunge intrinsic tacit cogent
denote acquisition peripatetic ebullient anomalous pullulating extraneous
jejune hyperborean abstruse incondite tantalum acronychal erudite tautophony (I59)

Mostly familiar words, perhaps used less commonly than others—appearing, I would guess, more often in writing than in speech. Some you’d not think to use (“incondite tantalum acronychal”), and you’d want to consult a dictionary before deploying a number of others. And that appears to be the point of their appearance in Implexures. Part One of “Developmental Dictionary” is a list (three and half pages in length) of definitions, synonyms, or instances of the words in Part Two. So in reading one applies the following to the first five words of the series—

contact, proximity
prologue, introduction
production (of facts) to prove
general statement
of fanciful conception
meant to instruct (I56)

—and these to the last five:

ill constructed, crude, unpolished
rare white metallic element
highly resistant to heat &
action of acids
happening at nightfall
repetition of the same sound (I59)

“Developmental Dictionary” is an archeological document—as is, when one considers it, any dictionary, especially one that supplies the meanings of words with a history, allowing one to dig up old uses or to discover that words are protean, owing to their multiple and heterogeneous etymologies: “induction” is not just one word but several, depending on the context. In the Elizabethan theater, it means “prologue, introduction.” It is also, of course, a term of art in logic and the foundation of the empirical sciences. And it is also how one gets into a Hall of Fame (or, worse luck, into the military). As a good archeologist, Karen Mac Cormack gives us the Middle English meaning of “specious” (“of good appearance” [I56]), and in the bargain alludes to its proximity to the next word in the series, “plausible” (“seemingly reasonable or probable” [I56]), which “specious” in our current use of the word must be: a baldly incoherent explanation, incredible from the start, would not be “specious.” Plausibility is a condition of deception.

Just so, the words in Part Two of “Developmental Dictionary” do not make up a random series but are internally connected—phonetically, morphemically, semantically: “induction” is an instance of “contiguity”; “inimical” echoes “chimerical,” and so, more subtly, does “didactic” (the series is an example of “tautophony”). Maxims are pithy, and so, being maxims, are aphorisms. “Obsequious” is a reversal of “vituperative.” And without doubt the series grows more “abstruse” or “erudite” (recondite but by no means “incondite”) as it draws to a close. “Acronychal”—“happening at nightfall”—concerns the rising or setting of stars, as opposed to their rising or setting at sunrise (which is “cosmical”). The Oxford English Dictionary’s entry is worth a moment of your time (you’ll be hard pressed to find the word anywhere else). While in the neighborhood, consult “acrophony.”          

Poetry as an archeology of language brings new life to the now tired concept of “open form.” The idea is to recover and explore different linguistic environments, whether ancient or modern, high or low, lost or forgotten. Let me conclude by citing Vanity Release (2003) in which Mac Cormack appropriates a number of unique vocabularies. She begins with “a statement: re ‘sourced’ poems in VANITY RELEASE”:

I have become increasingly intrigued by late 19th and early 20th century shorthand dictionaries and manuals (and most recently a mid-20th-century typewriting manual), in addition to phrase books for travelers through the 20th century.

The choice of word lists, sentences to learn by, and the exercises in these respective manuals reflect not only the ongoing changes in North American English for this period, but also shifts in educational, business, and technological terminology. To engage with these terms in a context of contemporary investigational poetic practice is one way to perplex meaningfully what is so easily taken for granted technologically, linguistically, and socially in our own times (VR5).

UP, my favorite poem in the volume, takes its words and phrases from Universal Phonography, H. M. Pernin © 1886, Sixth Edition, 1893. Phonography, literally sound-writing, is a form of stenography invented in 1837 by Isaac Pitman. UP begins:

Phonography dispenses with useless letters by recording the sounds of words only. In practice you should endeavor to forget the ordinary spelling of words, and think only of the sounds of which they are composed. Remember always to write what you hear and not what you see. Accuracy is the first essential… “Make haste slowly.”

Sz sh zh, j ch, are horizontal curves traced from left to the manner indicated on page 36 facing the right. The sound of x is a combination of the sounds k s

Get the doctor a cup of black tea, Harry feared the boat would veer to the left. A red leaf fell at the foot of the oak (VL31).

The first “stanza” gives us the basic rule of phonography, which is to forget the phonetic alphabet and to replace it with minor strokes of the pen or pencil, as indicated in “stanza” two: the sounds “sh” and “zh” are written as curves like the lower right quarter of a new moon. The first sentence of the third stanza would be written as follows:

               However, what matters in Mac Cormack’s archeology is not simply the recovery of the forgotten text but the recuperation of its peculiar idiom—namely, the pedagogical sound of the late 19th-century office manual:

The majority of business houses prefer their correspondence typewritten, it being not only more legible than ordinary longhand, but also much more rapidly executed. Comparatively few people are really good spellers, a fact due in a great measure to the absurd construction of the language and partly to early neglect of this important branch of education. The stenographer who would keep abreast of the times should also be acquainted with the shorthand literature in general. The word us has been inadvertently omitted from the Lord’s Prayer (V36).

The “absurd construction of the language” indeed. It turns out that what Karen Mac Cormack’s poetic research recovers from these manuals is the struggle between the rationalization of the world, the programs of efficiency, control, and split-second reproduction on our which modernity depends, and the essential paganism of language—the sheer excess and unmanageability of a language not really made for literacy, legibility, or the various technologies of word-processing. The attempt to streamline human speech, including the manufacture of buzz words, acronyms, sound bites, not to mention email and who knows how many new forms of digital shorthand, fails because, as Vanity Release shows, streamlining produces its own special forms of comic materiality, as in the penultimate poem in Vanity Release, WE-23.[9] The source-text for this poem is a typing manual, General Typing, 191 Series © 1965 by the McGraw-Hill Company of Canada, Ltd., filled with finger exercises, helpful hints, moral encouragement, cautionary notes, and useful examples for the eager secretary.

BODY centered opposite the J key, a hand-span from the machine

She fed us egg salads. Ed fed us eggs.
Fred sells red jugs; red jars are free.
Ask Dr. Grass. Dr. Grass leads us all.

This book has many “clinics.”
area dear drag flu gush gulf hire huge
idea jugs lark kill read self side drug

Errors should not alarm you; instead, they should guide you.

Control Hyphen, Q, and ? keys
Can you keep your elbows still?
sofa soap sock soak son sod sox sow
side of the center

STRESS: Continuity
Watch for it. Get set. (VR41)

The poem continues for several pages, concluding with what is surely the twentieth century’s most important advice: “REMEMBER: Don’t give in to the temptation to look up!” (VR57)

[1] Djuna Barnes, Nightwood (Normal, IL: Dalkey Archive Press, 1995), p. 36.

[2] Gertrude Stein, Writings 1903-1932 (New York: Library of America, 1998), p. 315.

[3] See Steve McCaffery, “Phrase Propulsion in the Writing of Karen Mac Cormack,” Prior to Meaning: The Protosemantic and Poetics (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 2001), esp. pp. 154-57.

[4] The Differend: Phrases in Dispute, trans. George Van Den Abbeele (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1983), paragraph 18.

[5] Just Gaming, trans. Wlad Godzich (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1985), p. 16.

[6] “Interruption, as on a Riemann Surface,” The Infinite Conversation, trans. Susan Hanson (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993), p. 75.

[7] See Marjorie Perloff, “After Free Verse: The New Non-linear Poetries,”

[8] Empty Words: Writings ’73-’78 (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1979), p. 137.

[9] The last line of the poem explains the title: “in we 23 the 23 is typed by the same fingers, in the same manner, as the word we (VR57).