The Alphabet, Ron Silliman. University of Alabama Press. 1062pp., $39.95.
(continued from page 1)
We will turn our thoughts now to Ron Silliman’s The Alphabet. In Postmodern American Poetry, Paul Hoover provides a brief biography of Silliman:
Born in Pasco, Washington, and raised in Albany, California, Silliman attended San Francisco State University and the University of California at Berkeley. Since 1972, he has worked as an organizer in the prison and tenant movements, a lobbyist, editor of Socialist Review, teacher, and college administrator.
Given all of this other activity, it is amazing that Silliman has any time to write at all. But write he does. As Hoover puts it:
Ron Silliman is a prolific poet and critic, one of the original group of San Francisco language poets. His ongoing long poem, The Alphabet . . . will eventually grow to twenty-six volumes. This strategy may have been suggested by the long poem, “A,” of the Objectivist poet Louis Zukofsky. Yet this is only part of Silliman’s production, which numbered eight volumes before 1983.
The twenty-six volumes turned into one very long book.
Silliman begins with “Albany,” written in 1979-80 and beginning “If the function of writing is to ‘express the world.’ My father withheld child support, forcing my mother to live with her parents, my brother and I to be raised together in a small room. Grandfather called them niggers. I can’t afford an automobile.” Silliman describes the impetus behind this disjunctive, fractured prose, on page 1057, as “The idea behind each sentence should be both personal and political.” However, to truly get a feel for what he is attempting to accomplish we must resort to his seminal theoretical work, The New Sentence, an excerpt of which is available in the anthology he edited, In The American Tree (a book which anyone interested in language poetry must own). For the development of his concept of the New Sentence, Silliman owes a great debt to Gertrude Stein, in particular to her Tender Buttons, a debt he acknowledges in an extensive discussion of her writing style. He states in In The American Tree that:
If “language writing” means anything, it means writing which does focus the reader onto the level of the sentence and below, as well as those units above. Heretofore, this has been accomplished by the deliberate exclusion of certain elements of signification, such as reference and syntax. The new sentence is the first mode of “language writing” which has been able to incorporate all the elements of language, from below the sentence level and above.
And so “Albany” opens with a sentence fragment, a dependent clause shorn of dependency through the omission of that on which it should be dependent. The clause is then followed by a sentence that has no relation to what has gone before or what comes after—as do all the other sentences, which are assembled in a process best described (to use a term which Lyn Hejinian prefers) as montage. The assemblage of sentences comes to resemble the assembling of scenes in a movie, the best example of which might be the Dali/Bunuel film Un Chien Andalou, except that Silliman specifically denounces Surrealism as having nothing to do with the creation of the new sentence.
The Alphabet’s second volume, “Blue,” written in 1981, is a tease. Silliman sucks the reader into believing that perhaps this will be written straight, as the first paragraph/stanza seems to describe a pleasant afternoon:
The Marchioness went out at five o’clock. The sky was blue yet tinged with pink over the white spires which broke up the east horizon. The smell of the afternoon’s brief shower was still evident . . .
But then comes the second, which rips that impression apart:
Government was therefore an attitude. Dour, the camel pushed with his nose against the cyclone fence . . .
Is the government’s attitude dour like a camel pushing its nose against a cyclone fence? And is attending government the reason why the Marchioness went out, the result of which was the ruination of the beautiful afternoon? Interesting!
“Engines” is a collaboration between Silliman and Rae Armantrout, written in 1982. Silliman states, at page 1057, that “There is utterly no mystery (to me) as to who wrote what.” There is to us. My guess is that they alternated sentences, as in:
You twist your key in the ignition. A woman mumbles and shakes. Fucking as if to stimulate an ideal reader. “A figure in white hovered at the end of this passage.” So death-bed dreams are not incomparable . . .
My guess is Silliman wrote the odd-numbered sentences and Armantrout the even. At this point, the fifth book in The Alphabet, Silliman is beginning to create longer paragraphs/stanzas.
Silliman has a penchant for playing with paragraphs. Up to the paragraph that ends with the line “I snuck in a last word,” each of the paragraphs in “Garfield” (written “circa 1980-81″) are comprised of 20 “sentences”; following that paragraph, each becomes 21 sentences in length. Pulling a number out of a hat is not the only way that Ron determines the nature of a paragraph (certainly the subject matter has nothing to do with it). To return to what Paul Hoover states in Postmodern American Poetry, “Silliman has a preference for eccentric forms of his own invention. The book-length prose poem Tjanting (1981), for example, is written according to the Fibonacci number sequence, with the result that the number of sentences in each paragraph equals the number of sentences in the previous two paragraphs.” A similar thing happens in “Ink” (1986-7), where the length of each paragraph grows exponentially: the first one occupies seven lines, while the last one runs from pages 105 to 112. And finally, there is the unending paragraph of “Kejtak2: Caravan of Affect” (1988-1993), where a single paragraph runs from pages 139 to 223, broken only by bold text such as in “Trash bag to garbage can is inverse prophylactic.” It finally ends with a misquote from the Grateful Dead: “What a long strange text its been.”
Surprisingly, Silliman will occasionally resort to verse—not your everyday style of verse, mind you, but verse nonetheless. He does so in his 1985-86 poem “Hidden,” which even resorts to enjambment and rhyme or implications thereof: “I rest my vase // Enjambed by brigands, on a // voyage to fetch groceries, that which is / merely accessible soon blots.” The reader must visualize the sight rhyme between vase and case—the word vase assuming the position where the word case should be—to hear the new sentence as it stretches between stanzas. But, at the end, the visualization has rewards: “The world is all that is a vase / thrown against the door. My face reflects // more than mirrors can tell. That man is dead / whose life was spent in hell.”
Then there are times, such as in “Jones” (1987), when prose and verse will be interspersed in a seemingly random fashion. While themes seem to pepper Silliman’s structures, in “Jones” the theme of the contrast between life in the city and nature becomes reasonably clear. Two examples will suffice: one prose, the other verse:
A jay (not visible) harps repeatedly in the tree, but what I see instead are the epaulettes of the red-wing blackbird. Wild pennyroyal, little blue flowers, amid the dry grass. Underneath her stocking she’s wearing a small golden ankle bracelet. Big dark plastic trash bag leans against the stucco house.
bale of crushed cardboard wrapped in wire
out by the loading dock
next to the bright yellow dumpster
yellow eyes of a blackbird
no taller than these dandelions
at the base of this pine
Repeatedly throughout this poem, images of the city are given in images of decay while the countryside is pristine, compelling with nature, a beacon to a spiritual existence, a renewal, an escape from the tyranny of the city. Interspersed within this are a variety of other themes (“underneath her stocking”—the sensual v. the spiritual) as well as the humor that Silliman so effectively uses to maintain the reader’s interest during the passage of the long undulating sentences: “The number of rubber bands discarded, rotting on the tracks or between them at the platform is an index of the commuters who arrive each morning at the station with their newspapers still rolled up. Old dead skunk in the road no longer smells (black and white and red all over.)”
“Non” (1987-89) is another of those pieces rare for Silliman where a theme can readily be discerned—in this case, both by the words and the structure. The piece, which runs from pages 297 to 364, opens with the words:
So then go back
to the old forms
as if they were forms at all
As the words wend themselves along a twisted route, descending down the page like a snake through grass, we instantaneously recognize the theme as “form.”
Silliman’s book continues for another six hundred or so pages. But burnout is imminent. And so, we’ll bid good-bye here, as patterns have begun to emerge and the glimpse sought at the outset has been achieved.
Provided that West Coasters Lyn Hejinian and Leslie Scalapino are taken into consideration with Silliman, and the work of East Coaster Susan Howe with Bernstein, then it is safe to reach the following conclusions:
1. There is a propensity on the West Coast to focus more on prose than verse. The opposite is true of the East Coast, although, in both instances, they will dabble in the other.
2. There is a propensity on the West Coast towards the long poem. This may reflect an influence from Jack Spicer, with his serial poems, and/or Alan Ginsberg, with his mimicry of Whitman. On the other hand, the East Coasters have a definite preference for the short poem—generally one pagers.
3. Whereas the sentence predominantly provides the structure on the West Coast, the East Coasters still prefer the line.1
Both Bernstein’s Girly Man and Silliman’s The Alphabet are excellent introductions to the world of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E, even though the Silliman might be a bit formidable if attempted in one sitting.
John Herbert Cunningham’s criticism has appeared in many places, including Malahat Review, Prairie Fire, Arc, Antigonish Review, and the Rain Taxi Review of Books.
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More from The Quarterly Conversation:
- Girly Man by Charles Bernstein For those few who remain unacquainted with Bernstein and his history (perhaps there are one or two non-novitiates left), here is a brief bio. Graduating from Harvard University in 1972, Bernstein, who was born in New York City on April 4, 1950, co-edited (along with Bruce Andrews) L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E magazine, which,...
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