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Traveling By Hand

Robert Walser, "A Will to Shake That Refined Individual", in Robert Walser Microscripts, Translated by Susan Bernofsky



I like to employ diverse technologies in composing poems and other texts (including blog posts), a writing practice that's loosely organized around the separate workspaces I've set up in my office — a sit-down writing table, a standup desk, and a shelf extension where I consult printed reference materials. These workspaces are interchangeable in practice, with the exception of an oakwood library chair, reserved for sitting and reading. All of these workstations are situated within a totalizing space of about a hundred square feet! — and where the majority of wall space is committed to shelving for books. Whenever possible, as I say, I diversify my writing qua writing practice, using either the computer, pencil on paper, or ink (fountain pen or quill), on paper. There's drawing paper on hand too, along with a variety of inks, pencils and pens, charcoal, and other tools such as compass, rulers, protractor.


At home in Philadelphia between field trips, I would routinely walk through the city neighborhoods, visiting especially the many small, independent galleries and bookshops. In Old City one day I walked into a small gallery and began looking at the paintings hung there. Very soon the owner — an artist — emerged from an adjacent room. We talked. At the time I was actively doing fieldwork, traveling wherever that took me, and when I mentioned my work, he became interested and made a leap, encouraging me to begin drawing to capture whatever insight -- esoteric, hermetic -- resulting from my relinquishing the familiar spaces/places, to approach the distant the unfamiliar the unknown (opposite/oppositional-spaces/places) — not mirrors — spaces/places closed or veiled — typically available to those on the inside, unavailable to those on the outside. Such was the nature of our conversation that day.


I wrote the following to a local artist in December 2009, relating to a project I was working on at the time:


Beyond all that, I also agree that we need to make more contact in the neighborhood itself, with new people. Remember the Lao monk that rainy Saturday when we visited Koune? [This was a recent visit to a Lao Buddhist temple in Philadelphia.] He was so expansive and expressive, but we really couldn't 'understand' much of what he was saying. But he talked, and we listened, and it worked. Fieldwork is like that in general. But more particularly, we need to explore that sort of communicative potential at large in the neighborhood and find social spaces where we really don't know what's going on or what people are saying, but we are anyway involved in some sort of deep engagement whether with English speakers or others that will produce something authentic, uncontrived. Interesting how that something could just as well be babble rather than words, or that it begins with babble, in any case, language notwithstanding.


And several years later, a note to myself:


"Discovery" on BBC this morning 9 September [2016] aired in the 3am hour sounded interesting -- about risk in scientific research and related issues in the context of the historical development of certain lines of inquiry and also I think and perhaps especially the idea of error as part of the shaping and production of knowledge and ultimately the political dimension of science and its applicability. At the moment I tuned in and began to absorb what I was hearing I'd been thinking about writing about fieldwork and all the indeterminacies associated with that. There was something on the program about "setting the meter" incorrectly, perhaps in an experimental process, with that error being carried through and shaping the outcome importantly, which dovetailed somehow with my own thought process at that moment, fieldwork such as it is being fraught with "error". For example, my idea of note taking and listening within a time rift that inhibits or restricts perception of the actual information being provided while simultaneously opening doors or windows of perception onto realms of intuitive -- or counterintuitive -- "meanings" not otherwise available in everyday discourse. So we do fieldwork not fundamentally in order to document and record information or manufacture data, but to set up conditions to achieve or gain access to these other realms.


Standing and talking in that storefront gallery space in Philadelphia, I realized that the artist had intuited something fundamental and important. I agreed that, yes, I've long felt that drawing could be a way to free my hand, which held a position at the threshold of those intimated worlds. The artist suggested I contact a friend who was (at that time) an instructor at the Slought Foundation in Philadelphia, suggested I explain that he was commending me to him, that I join the friend's drawing class at Slought. I did write to him, and was invited to join the class — but didn't follow through — probably because I had to leave town for the next fieldwork gig.


Cultivation of drawing skills aside, I do work with fountain pen, with inkwell and quill, with pencil and paper, which I believe are significant affordances of drawing. With this in mind, I looked through a book called Untitled Passages by Henri Michaux, having just re-read Michaux's essay on the Chinese written character, while awaiting arrival of a replacement copy of Fenollosa's essay, thinking to do some writing on the subject. Of course, the Fenollosa essay had been influential for Ezra Pound, and consequently for later generations of American poets.


So I picked up this other book by Michaux, which as it happens is the catalog for a museum exhibit of Michaux's drawings, and right away found a prefatory note titled "To Draw the Flow of Time" — where he writes that he had been drawing 'the consciousness of existing and the flow of time' but was producing 'scarcely more than one or two or three lines meeting up here and there with a few others…' Until a publisher wanting to reproduce some of the drawings said, 'All you have to do is make them bigger.' HM protested, seizing hold of a brush to demonstrate that "bigger" was impossible — but —


   As I drew the first lines I felt, to my extreme surprise, that something that had always been closed had opened up in me, and that this breach was to afford an outlet for a mass of movements.
   The fulness of the gesture necessitated by the characters that were supposed to come out bigger had changed the spirit of the drawing. Instead of characters, instead of notations of an undefinable 'something,' they became propulsion, participation, released torrent.


Michaux sometimes made drawings after ingesting mescaline or lysergic acid (mescalin especially). A selection of the mescaline drawings is included in the catalog, along with others of interest — there is a number of "alphabet" drawings — figures arrayed in a tabular format on the page. Interestingly, there are also several "movements" drawings, some also with figures arranged in more or less tabular format. These drawings open vistas too expansive for my purposes here, but I'll return to them in a future post.


In contrast to Michaux, the great Swiss writer Robert Walser spent the closing years of his life in a sanitarium — his everyday outer experience was one of confinement. And he too turned to writing "strange" — adopting what appeared to be an esoteric script, or code —producing a number of "microscripts." Susan Bernofsky, Walser's translator, describes them as "narrow strips of paper covered with tiny, antlike markings ranging in height from one to two millimeters," which were assumed to be indecipherable scribbles. But two scholars, looking more closely, identified them as writing per se, a "radically miniaturized" German script called Kurrent — "the form of handwriting favored in German-speaking countries until the mid-twentieth century, when it was replaced by a Latinate form similar to that used in English." As Bernofsky explains:


Kurrent is medieval in its origins, all up-and-down slanting angles. It is a form of script better suited to compression than modern handwriting, though its graphic simplicity — an e is represented by a simple pair of vertical ticks like a quotation mark, an s by a mere slash — means that shrinking it down results in a dramatic loss of detail and comprehensibility.


It seems that Kurrent may be likened to a "secret" code after all! Bernofsky's description is strikingly like Michaux's account of his drawings prior to being asked to "make them larger," which helped Michaux to free his hand. Walser too had issues with his hand. Bernofsky quotes from a letter Walser wrote to a publisher —


I can assure you (this all began in Berlin) I suffered a real breakdown in my hand on account of the pen, a sort of cramp from whose clutches I slowly, laboriously freed myself by means of the pencil… So I experienced a period of disruption that was mirrored, as it were, in my handwriting and its domination, and when I copied out the texts from this pencil assignment, I learned again, like a little boy, to write.


Bernofsky concludes: "By his own account, then, Walser began writing in a tiny pencil script to combat a sort of writer's cramp." There seem to be unmistakable parallels between the very diverse experience of Walser and Michaux -- both confronting limitations posed by the hand, both finding freedom by using the hand differently, eclipsing the writing/drawing they'd previously done to open new vistas of outlook and expression.

I'll close by citing an interesting little book by the Italian architect Paolo Belardi titled, Why Architects Still Draw. Having quoted Leonardo on "the rivalry between pen and pencil" Belardi offers a sort of rapprochement that may be apposite here:


Though if we look closely, there isn't any real competition or conflict between writing and drawing…I've always been charmed by the rhetorical finesse with which the great poet Marino Moretti attributes the fragility of the written word to the ephemeral nature of the pencil.


More later…

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Notes on My Library

Paperback copy of The Bridge of San Luis Rey, ebay.com


Alan Loney, one-time poet, longtime printer, and theorist of the book, participated in the Threads Talk Series, given between 2009 and 2012, and later co-published by Granary Books and Cuneiform Press in 2016 (I cited Loney's essay in an earlier post on the "undifferentiated poem"). In his essay Loney assesses his library, and reflects on his retirement from printing -- which leads to thoughts about reading. (I preserve Loney's orthography in these excerpts):


But I am about to cease making books, and my thought turns to the books about the house, most of which are unread in any normal sense, tho I have glanced at a page or two, here & there, in each of them. In some. I have looked only at their paratexts: titlepage, epigraph, endnotes, bibliography, index and so on.


Loney continues:


my library, for want of a better term, is not large. It has approximately one thousand volumes, and at my reading speed it would probably take me about forty years to read each volume once only, by which time I would be 110 years old. If I have actually twenty years left to me, you can see the problem.


Even so, he says,


liberated from printing books, maybe now I can learn to read them


Loney's essay had already been published in The books to come, a collection of his own writings  (Cuneiform Press, 2012), which collectively form a provocative meditation on "books" — objects that Loney understands expansively to include "other modes of textual transmission", such as bus tickets, magazines, and street signs.


Walter Benjamin has a brief essay on his personal library, or rather his "collection" — offered as a rumination on the occasion of "unpacking" his library, which, he writes, had languished in storage for the prevoius two years. In that essay, which is complex and which I adapt to my own purpose here, Benjamin sounds a similar theme to Loney's, suggesting that owning books but leaving them unread is routine among collectors. Benjamin develops his essay by outlining the several ways that individuals acquire books, such as borrowing, where he suggests that,


The book borrower of real stature whom we envisage here proves himself to be an inveterate collector of books not so much by the fervor with which he guards his borrowed treasures and by the deaf ear which he turns to all reminders from the everyday world of legality as by his failure to read these books. If my experience may serve as evidence, a man is more likely to return a borrowed book upon occasion than to read it. And the non-reading of books, you will object, should be characteristic of collectors? This is news to me, you may say. It is not news at all. Experts will bear me out when I say that it is the oldest thing in the world. Suffice it to quote the answer which Anatole France gave to a philistine who admired his library and then finished with the standard question, "And you have read all these books,. Monsieur France?" "Not one-tenth of them. I don't suppose you use your Sèvres china every day?"


The original impetus for this post was my reading a collection of letters that John Ashbery had written to Mark Ford, which the latter published in the English literary magazine PN Review after the poet's death. In one of these, Ashbery wrote:


I've been trying to supplement my usual reading of the Times, LRB and TLS with something more nourishing, and decided to crack open some of the hundreds of unread books I own. A friend just gave me P.G. Wodehouse's Damsel in Distress, which was made into a thirties musical starring Fred Astaire and someone other than Ginger Rogers, as well as harebrained Gracie Allen. There's a rather nice scene in an amusement park fun-house, but I can't seem to revive my 12-year-old passion for P.G., maybe because of all of those broadcasts during the as yet unthought-of war. So I decided to crack the work of George Meredith. I thought of trying Diana of the Crossways or The Tragic Comedians, but David said the type was too small and brought me instead Lord Ormont and His Aminta. I see that his most salient characteristic is oddness, which I, surely, have nothing against. Frank O used to like a poem of his called 'Jump for Glory Jane', it seems to me, and of course 'Modern Love' is peachy, don't you agree?
(5 June, 2015)


This reference to "the hundreds of unread books I own" likely rings true with many collectors. As a lifelong bibliophile, collector, (and reader) of books, I too have been confronted with the "standard question", as reported by Anatole France via Walter Benjamin. When I lived in Morristown, New Jersey in the late 1970s, our combined living-dining room had a long, high wall, where after moving in I right away built and installed a bookcase made of pine boards that were 1" thick and 12" deep. I cut them to size, stained them a dark brown, screwed the boards together, braced the corners, and set the whole thing against the wall, propping up the long shelves at evenly spaced intervals to minimize sagging.


I've forgotten the exact dimensions of that bookcase, but memory suggests it was roughly seven feet high and twelve feet long — with nearly all of that space taken up with books. Some months later, after we'd settled into that apartment, a dinner guest popped the big question — had I actually read them all? At that time, I could answer with a qualified yes, but that would change on relocating to Philadelphia to enroll in graduate school -- where I learned that graduate students have a special way of "reading" books.


I began purchasing books as a kid in my home town of Paterson, New Jersey, where I could walk down Mary Street to Main Street, towards the local pharmacy (which bore the name "Apteka", the Polish word for "pharmacy", on a sign set above the door), and where there was a small revolving book rack standing off to one side of the entrance. There were other neighborhood sources of books as well — there was the small lunch counter/ice cream parlor right across Barclay Street from the Apteka. St. Joseph's Hospital, where I was born, was directly across Main Street, while a small distance uphill on Barclay Street there was a small church, whose members were Syrian Christians from Aleppo (which last time I looked had transitioned to a Pentecostal church for Latinos).


Growing up, I felt that the Syrian church, along with the Polish Apteka, cast a special aura over the neighborhood. Indeed, there was an established and growing community of Arab peoples just a few blocks south along Main Street, with bakeries and small eateries offering breads and foods from the various home countries (Lebanon, Jordan, Syria, and Turkey) of residents and merchants of that neighborhood. There were also a number of bodegas nearby, owned by Puerto Ricans who had settled there in the post-war period. My old South Paterson neighborhood has changed quite a lot since then, with newcomers arriving from Turkey and nearby countries, gravitating toward that same area along South Main Street, the Puerto Rican community later giving way to Dominicans. I believe that they or some other Latino communitiy now worship at that erstwhile Syrian church on Barclay Street.


By the time I'd turned eight or nine years old, I was a steady consumer of books. Apart from an interest in their contents, I was probably attracted by the cover art or design, by simply picking up and holding the book, or by the descriptive blurb on the back cover. I visited the public library on Grand Street too, but even at that relatively young age I wanted to own books. The books filling the neighborhood racks back then cost as little as 25 or 35 cents, and I had "income" of my own, mainly from scavenging soda bottles and returning them to local stores for the deposit, or from "junking" — collecting discarded newspapers, or stripping parts from abandoned cars left on the street or in empty lots (starters, generators, alternators, etc.) and hauling them to the local junkyard for a payout. I was often on hand, too, to run errands for elderly people in the neighborhood, who would tip with a nickel, or have me keep the carefully calculated change from whatever purchases I'd made for them. And of course, in winter I shoveled snow for those same neighbors.


Looking back, some of those book titles are surprising, others not — I especially remember The Bridge of San Luis Rey by Thornton Wilder, and Lost Horizon by James Hilton. But there was also Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men, books by Robert Louis Stevenson (Treasure Island and The Black Arrow), or Rudyard Kipling (Kim and The Jungle Book), and books by Jules Verne. I began reading contemporary science fiction at that time too — Lester Del Rey, Arthur C. Clarke, Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, and Andre Norton. I recall liking Norton especially much (though I don't believe I read any of the books she wrote for young people). There were other writers and other books as well, too numerous to be named here.


I held onto those early purchases for many years, fetishizing them as mementos or, less prosaically, valuing them as starry messengers from my childhood. Whichever it was, they formed at first the embryonic and then the continually evolving substrate of my being — a bookish, though not scholarly individual, with a lifelong affinity for books and an abiding urge to acquire them. Those very early books gradually fell away, some left behind at my parents' house following the decisive breakaway from my birth family, some later misplaced or discarded while moving or relocating. There have been several iterations of culling, up to the most recent version — downsizing. I've given away many hundreds, amounting to thousands of books — to local libraries, to used booksellers, and most recently to a neighborhood typewriter repair shop, whose proprietor is setting books out for display around the storefront and sidewalks, in an effort at community building.


In his Threads Talk essay, Alan Loney discusses the many things I myself have wondered about – whether or not to continue adding to my existing library (at my age), the dual nature of books (book as codex vs. book as text), and so on. This gets at the argument Walter Benjamin was making, that books, in certain hands, can exceed or transcend their texts; they are indeed a magic conjuncture. Meanwhile, I expect that this post will engender a further post, where I plan to look more closely at Benjamin's essay, and explore Alan Loney's writings in more detail.

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