Tuesday, December 5, 2017

disbelief is the action of not

Reading Scalapino's New Time, 1999, which is a straightforward poem compared to the hybrid poetry-prose of Dahlia's Iris or Defoe, I think how cleanly it accomplishes her idea of immediacy or rupture in comparison to the other two books (because poetry more naturally allows for it, see Ashbery, Trakl, etc), and then I reason that the awkwardness of the hybrids may even be a disruptive point – in fact, is, or so I assume when I hear of her affirming the importance of a "physical alteration being literal" in hmmmm, 1976, a piece of writing in which a man is imagined as a seal.* Not compared to a seal, she says: but is a seal, an impossibility that is supposed to produce "disbelief." "[D]isbelief is the action of not being duped ‘inside’ any kind of seeing either optical or conceptual." So, Brechtishly, if you are disbelieving then you are not duped, you are looking at what is going on 'outside' the words, not only taking a casual pleasure in them, and you are aware that the form here in front of you is not the only form that form can take.

(Regarding Scalapino's automatic writing – the seal/man idea coming up spontaneously, she says – I want to say something about the way that visual artists around the '60s and '70s were developing a trust in the worthiness of poured liquids, e.g., Benglis, Hesse – and I wonder if the connection that her blurb writer at Green Integer made with Breton could be directed there as well, at this faith in spewing something --)

I disbelieve more when I read the hybrids, especially when she reaches the detective-novel inserts. Meanwhile, in a normal detective novel (I am remembering Peter Temple and calling him normal, but is he?), the immediacy moves along with a personality I understand, descending inevitably into misery. Compare to Trakl. The misery is part of the Temple story's continuity. The immediate shocks are always marks on his path into that swamp pit. A Peter Temple detective story maintains this non-chaotic sense of hierarchy that Scalapino saw herself acting against.

But her kind of disruption itself is not, I think, understood (or in other words, felt) immediately, in the way that a disruption inside the hierarchy would be – David Jones, for example, pointing out that his Ancient Romans speak like Cockneys in The Anathemata, 1951, which I want to read as a riposte against T.S. Eliot's assumption that Cockneys are harbingers perhaps of degradation. Here they are at the beginning of things, a group of originators. But since Jones made a point of saying it, I think he envisioned some readers reacting to his Cockney Romans as if he was trying to make them disbelieve - in the Scalapino sense – as if he had given them the equivalent of a seal/man.

*described here.


  1. I keep thinking about this post, and the idea of disbelief, of a writer deliberately trying to instill disbelief in a reader. I'm not sure it works like that, that a reader of Scalapino would necessarily feel any sort of nudge in any direction upon encountering the man-as-seal, or Jones' Cockney Romans. We're all brought up, are we not in this Western world, on fairy tales and science fiction films and myths of one sort or another anyway, that verisimilitude is just another flavor of entertainments, yes? I don't know. I don't see it as a powerful force, I guess is what I'm saying. In one of my many unpublished books, characters slip into Shakespearean dialogues, reality is permeable, dead men walk into dreams and then into 7-11s. All if it seems plausible and normal within a fiction, or a poem.

    I've been reading a lot of critical theory about detective stories, as it happens, about the breakdown of certain knowledge and the restoration (or not) of that certainty. I'm sure some readers expect to encounter the socially-constructed "reality" in poems and novels, but surely not anyone who's reading much modern poetry?

    1. I think this disbelief exists in her desire for it to exist more than it actually exists, especially when (as you suggest) the writer is describing something that might as well be a fairy tale. (Though could she argue back at me and say that this idea in the reader, "Oh all right, I'm reading a fairy tale now," is the effect of disbelief that she's looking for? She's dislodged you a little from the place where you were --).

      Her colleague Hejinian is a lot more concrete.

      When it comes to the Cockney Romans, I'm thinking back on some of the really anti-Cockney or anti-lower-class-accent books that were being written during Jones' lifetime (Baron Corvo's Hadrian the Seventh sticks out in my mind because it's so cruelly dismissive), or just the casual assumption by so many writers that giving your character one of those accents was enough to tell the reader (without any other information) that they were lesser, dimmer, nastier - and I honestly do believe it would have been a difficult moment for some people, who would have been very used to that casual identification of Cockneys with everything stupid, degenerate, urban, disruptive, and modern. I think that shock moment of forcing the reader to see that the distance between those two things (Cockney accents and near-mythical historical personages) is a construct of their own programmed assumptions, is part of Jones' strategy.

      (I think of Corvo sometimes here when I meet someone from the American South who tells me that they've suppressed their accent because other people kept reacting as if they were stupid as soon as they opened their mouths.)

    2. I read Hadrian the Seventh so long ago that I no longer remember details like that; I'll have to look at it again. I've been running across a lot of references to that book lately.

      I do understand the Cockney Romans thing, though. I've read examples of that sort of thing in mid-20th century American literature. The dialects were stereotypes of American Negro or Appalachian, so if you had a wealthy, powerful man say, "Well, he might could show up any day," you were sending a signal to the reader who shared your own social status. Etc. I'm not sure that's the same thing as pushing a reader into a state of disbelief. There's also the larger question of verisimilitude and fairy tales/myths, especially now that we live in a time where everything is simultaneously true and false, yes? We are all the Red Queen, believing impossible things. I've been thinking about verisimilitude a lot lately, for some reason, how we pretend a character in a book is more human than a pencil in a book, when neither of them is at all human, or real.

      I was raised in the American South and when my family moved to Colorado when I was a teenager, I too lost my accent as quickly as I could because I was assumed to be a halfwit.