It’s go in horizontal: Selected Poems, 1974-2006, Leslie Scalapino. University of California Press. 257pp, $16.95.
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Let us turn now to Leslie Scalapino, whose anthology, It’s go in horizontal, is equally worth owning. Whereas Mac Low, although from New York, was an iconoclast who never really fit into any particular school, Scalapino is considered a language poet, a loosely connected group that has come to dominate the American poetic avant-garde for the past 30 years or so. She, along with Ron Silliman, are part of the San Francisco wing of that illustrious group.
A great deal of Scalapino’s writing deals with the erotic. Considering the sublimation of the ego that is part of the politics and philosophy of language poetry, this focus on the erotic may seem a strange bedfellow. Isn’t it the fact of the presence of the ego that gives way to the erotic, that creates the possibility of eroticism? Even from a voyeuristic perspective, the ego seems a necessary ingredient. And, when we examine one of Scalapino’s earlier works, Considering how exaggerated music is, published in 1982, we see she that she has been unable yet to release the ego, provided that the reference to ‘I’ is to herself:
This was in a business area and there were shops. People sat waiting at the bus stop and there was no traffic going by at the time so that I had the sense that they should be satisfied sexually by others and not by me or the others there.
They shouldn’t move or should walk around some though their sexual life should occur with someone from outside.
We are never told what it was that gave her that sense. Certainly it was not the fact of “waiting at the bus stop” or that “there was no traffic going by at the time.” Further, we are left to wonder what outside means—outside of what.
By the time of her next book, that they were at the beach—aleotropic series, published in 1985, even though the book is autobiographical, the erotica is occurring with someone other than “I”:
She heard the sounds of a couple having intercourse and then getting up they went into the shower so that she caught a sight of them naked before hearing the water running. The parts of their bodies which had been covered by clothes were those of leopards. During puberty her own organs and skin were not like this though when she had first had intercourse with a man he removed his clothes and his organ and flesh were also a leopard’s. She already felt pleasure in sexual activity and her body not resembling these adults made her come easily which also occurred when she had intercourse with another man a few months later.
Although the person has been replaced by a persona, other than the hidden leopard parts, which impart some distinction, this passage could be written by any mainstream writer of erotica.
Scalapino began developing some further distinction in “The Floating Series” from Way, published in 1988. Here the writing is less prose-like, more poetic:
a man entering
come on her—that
the memory of putting
the lily pad or the
bud of it first,
made her come
But the question now becomes how are we to analyze this “lily pad or the bud of it”? Given that language poets generally eschew metaphor in favor of metonymy, the reader may be confused, as there is no other way to interpret this than as metaphor. And, of course, the bud of the lily pad is none other than the lily itself, so this is equating the penis to the lily. But then, maybe not, as this image becomes confused when we consider the preceding stanza:
- putting the
lily pads or
bud of it
What seemed to be at first a clear metaphor becomes ripe with confusion—a confusion which is never resolved.
In the 1990s, Scalapino left behind the theme of erotica and entered into a pronounced political period, which she has remained in ever since. In her 2007 work, Day Ocean State of Stars’ Night, she denounces the Iraqi invasion:
the flower (rose) yet it’s actions only outward not vertical or
there our soldiers do horizontal night raids
kick the door and line up the inhabi-
tants battalions patrol a crowd of young Iraqis
ing them then a rocket-propelled grenade fired
In this poem Scalapino also ranges to a discussion of the U.S. Open tournament, where Venus Williams plays her sister Serena, while also denouncing the lack of medical care for the poor—overall the piece comprises a fascinating juxtaposition of events marking the devolution and decay of American society.
In Mac Low’s article, “Cage’s Writings up to the Late 1980s,” in Writings through John Cage’s Music, Poetry, and Art, he quotes Cage:
Value judgment . . . is a decision to eliminate from experience certain things. [Dr. D.T.] Suzuki said Zen wants us to diminish that kind of activity of the ego and to increase the activity that accepts the rest of creation. And rather than taking the path that is prescribed in the formal practice of Zen Buddhism itself, namely sitting cross-legged and breathing and such things, I decided that my proper discipline was the one to which I was already committed, namely the making of music. And that I would do it with a means that was as strict as sitting cross-legged, namely the use of chance operations, and the shifting of my responsibility from that of making choices to that of asking questions.
Were we to replace the words making of music with the words writing of poetry, this could have come out of Jackson Mac Low’s mouth. And the latter part, asking questions, applies equally well to Leslie Scalapino as to Mac Low. The thing of beauty is not in arriving at the answers but in the mere fact that we are able to formulate the questions.
John Cunningham’s criticism has appeared in many places, including Malahat Review, Prairie Fire, Arc, Antigonish Review, Mad Hatter’s Review, and the Rain Taxi Review of Books.
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- Thing of Beauty by Jackson Mac Low Thing of Beauty: New and Selected Works, Jackson Mac Low. University of California Press. 507pp, $34.95. Besides being released the same year by the same press, Thing of Beauty by Jackson Mac Low and Leslie Scalapino’s It’s go in horizontal share a number of other commonalities. The primary is that...
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