Thursday, May 10, 2012



“Network 1: The Knot” from The Network by Jena Osman
(Fence Books, Albany, NY, 2010)

I’m not going to transcribe “Network 1: The Knot”. Three reasons: 1: it’s 11 pages, as set in the book. 2, More Importantly, much of it is laid out in ways I don’t believe can be easily reproduced in a blog. I’ll ask you to picture genealogical trees tracing lines of filiation. 3: and perhaps Most Importantly, each page seems to have a life of its own.

I will app-cap the words found in the trees/tables.

These tables are important, inasmuch as, to some degree, they are the backbone of the poetic that Osman is [attempting to] through. Which is genealogical, though the focus isn’t on humans, at least not at first, it’s on language, on etymology to be both precise and inexact.

The poem begins with Osman (I take it to be Osman, rather than some fictional narrator, though of course of course it’s so boring to say that it’s not really Osman, it’s a languaged avatar of sorts) informing us that she’s been assigned the project of inventing a world: a project, which, an a manner worthy of a Bartleby, she’s prefer not … But, unlike Bartleby, she morphs this assignment into a different one:

Rather than invent a world, I want a different means to understand this one. I follow Cecilia Vicuña’s instruction to use an etymological dictionary: “To enter words in order to see.

By the time we read this, we have encountered our first etymological table, which plays with the word “scape” (because she is attempting to escape the original assignment). This table is divided into three columns: SCAPE 1, which leads to SEE ESCAPE; SCAPE 2, which leads from LANDSCIPE to LANDSCAPE in 5 steps; and SCAPE 3, which also leads to a SEE reference.

I have not, and do not propose to research her etymologies, because this is a poem, and I will take it as I find it, assuming that her etymologies will either be accurate or fanciful as she needs. It is not that I, like Plato, expect poems to lie; it’s that I give her “license” to proceed as necessary. After all, I’m not reading a peer-reviewed philological journal; I’m reading a book which has an epigraph by Borges, from his “The Garden of Forking Paths”. I will follow the forking paths. (She does provide sources for this poem, which I take as validation: Eric Partridge’s Origins: A Short Etymological Dictionary of Modern English; Cecilia Vicuña’s Unraveling Words and the Weaving of Water; William Pène du Bois, The 21 Balloons; Brion Toss, Chapman Knots for Boaters; Leslie Scalapino, Talisman interview.)

Next, she wonders what she will find, “in the knot and twine, the nylon seine”, which I take to be a way of describing an etymological model of proceeding, which would seem to take words as knots in the twine of time, the metamorphoses of history, the constant living thing that is language.

She passes through the apparent parallelism between heaven and hell, so to speak (Krakatoa/UTOPIA; PEACE/PROPOGANDA) (though there are many words found in the PEACE/PROPAGANDA table, which begins with PACISCERE, they are the only two that have been bolded)

On page 6 of this 11 page poem, she leaves the tables behind, and the poem begins to assume a more (physically) familiar form. Here she makes use of the metaphor of the balloonist dropping bits of ballast in the need to continue to rise. Pronunciation seems to be the focus here, as in “The ‘k’ falls from the knife.” Which of course has violence implicit, because what usually falls from the knife would be blood dripping, at least that’s what comes to my mind.

The next three pages are concerned with knots, connections, etc. In fact, page 7 is headed “KNOT language”. On this page she explores the etymology of the word “knot”, it’s sense as something that connects, her dissatisfaction with the etymological table, etc:

My trouble in tracking, only using straight lines. The wind sets me off course so I will not [JBR: important pun alert!] arrive. Birds puncture the balloon so I will not fly. An island explodes below [JBR: recall Krakatoa, earlier in the poem] so I will not land. I can barely see through the dust and mercury.

I think the issue here is the trouble with using any one single focus / lens / means  [e.g. etymology] through which to come to an understanding of this (or any other world). I will repeat the quote from above, so you can see easily how this paragraph relates to what she’s attempting to accomplish via this project:

Rather than invent a world, I want a different means to understand this one. I follow Cecilia Vicuña’s instruction to use an etymological dictionary: “To enter words in order to see.”

So as we turn the page we leave behind not and come to “not”. The first half of page 8 is devoted to a kind of etymology connecting the word “not” to “nought”: zero. By the second half of the page we are now aboard a sailboat, and are sailing, using all the gear we’ve developed to deal with the various lines required to manage the sails. Perhaps the most important lines here are here description of a turnbuckle:

            You are a spiral version of an inclined plane.

This signifies for two reasons. First, though not first in the sentence, is the “spiral version of an inclined plane”, which she can oppose to the frustrating straight lines. [Note: it is in fact impossible to control a sailboat without all kinds of geometries. Reliance on straight lines to control the lines would just rip one’s hands to shreds … if you were lucky]. The second important signification here is her use of apostrophe: the spiral etc is a “you”, almost (or more than almost) a person. This becomes important in the last sentence on the page, in which the human and the mechanical are utterly intertwined:

Reach through the eye with the thumb and forefinger to snare the bight between the two legs. 

The next page (9) begins all caps: CONNECT. CONNECTION, CONNEXION

A few lines later she quotes Leslie Scalapino as saying “to have this long process wihc sometimes contradicts itself, in fact very frequently. It just moves back and forth …”

This is followed by the line:

            to be confused with. utter. one direction always shadowed by another

This doesn’t put the lie to the use of etymology to understand the world, but it might put a bit of a question to the notion of understanding itself. Understanding is vexed. Perhaps it is not only the case that

There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy

Perhaps it’s also the case that there is more **to** things than we can dream of in a million philosophies …

The next few pages turn narrative (or several narratives, or pseudo narratives; in any case they leave behind the somewhat meditative/scholarly tone/style of the earlier part of the poem); quite appropriately, this is not easily to parse: it involves the balloonist, a package which is also a suitcase which is also a receptacle, speech balloons, “the shudder of guns”, and something “staining red the snow”; a man (on a ship) dealing with “the sea’s debris” (of which he is an aspect) in a variety of ways.

These pages do not leave behind the etymological, but now it is clearly situated within the human (I’m almost tempted to say, instead of vice versa, as at the beginning of the poem). In fact the poem closes with the man

            emerging on shore
            pulling himself up
            what’s this place?

                                                ou or eu
                                                or neo net

There’s a bit on page 4

            ou (not) or eu (good)
            no place becomes good place in u
            the good place becomes no place above
            Sir Thomas More, 1516, my reverasl

The rest of the book will concern itself with the nature of this place, but will not decide whether it is ou or eu. Recall the Scalapino quote. “It just moves back and forth …”         


[Editor’s Note: This is one of 50 reviews written, mas o menos, in 50 days.  While each engagement can be read on a stand-alone basis, there’s a layer of watching the critic’s subjectivity arise in a fulsome manner if the reviews are read one after another.  So if you have insomnia and/or are curious about this layer, I suggest you read the 50 reviews right after each other and, to facilitate this type of reading, I will put at the bottom of each review a “NEXT” button that will take you to the next review.  To wit: NEXT.  And an Afterword on John's reading process is also available HERE!]

John Bloomberg-Rissman is somewhere towards middle of In the House of the Hangman, the third section of his maybe life project called Zeitgeist Spam (picture Hannah Hoch painting over the Sistine Chapel) The first two volumes have been published: No Sounds of My Own Making, and Flux, Clot & Froth. In addition to his Zeitgeist Spam project, he has edited or co-edited two anthologies, 1000 Views of 'Girl Singing' and The Chained Hay(na)ku Project, and is at work on a third, which he is editing with Jerome Rothenberg. He is also deep into two important collaborations, one with Richard Lopez, one with Anne Gorrick. By important he means "important to him". Anyone else want to collaborate? He blogs at Zeitgeist Spam.

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