Homage to O, a Book by Leslie Scalapino
Serendipity Books, Berkeley, 1996. I come across a slender letterpress chapbook by Leslie 1Scalapino – O:
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The previous night I had driven with friends 11 hours through the desert to attend a large group poetry reading in San Francisco – one of those readings you remember as hosting your own
personal pantheon of women poets: Barbara Guest, Kathleen Fraser, Lyn Hejinian, Norma Cole, Joan Retallack, Rosmarie Waldrop, Leslie Scalapino…. I‟m trying to be faithful to the event and
not turn this into a wish-list or blur together several readings I saw in the late nineties, but already that seems impossible. Verisimilitude requires careful research.
At these readings and in other ways, Leslie Scalapino (in her particular way of being there) played a significant in my introduction to Bay Area poetic culture. Previous experience of poetic community I‟d gathered in Boston; then, after moving to Salt Lake City, I began reading into a whole different American poetry and these works compelled to make the trip to the Bay Area several times. On this particular night, of my first trips, I distinctly remember the thrill of buying the ticket, pushing our way into the small crowded lobby, spying live poets in the crowd (“is
that…? It is!”). Then the small miracle of sitting in the audience next to the poets. (This most
assuredly did not happen amongst the Boston literati, where seats were silently consigned to luminaries and worthy underlings which resulted in a clumping of somebodies. Here poets were scattered unselfconsciously amidst the crowd and even smiled). On one of these trips, Leslie was kind enough to invite me into her home to interview her about her poetry. I remember a Tudor-shaped house, a staircase leading to a door on an upper floor, books, and a zen garden with a miniature stone temple snug in a small back yard tucked against a highway on-ramp. This image, especially, has stuck with me as a figure of how precarious are our own constructions amidst the recklessness of existence.
I was selling the boxes of books we‟d brought to fund the trip and treating myself to directed browsing in the vast shelves of Serendipity. These were library-quality, huge metal stacks, the sort with a round crank one has to operate in order to move them apart to create space to squeeze in to be amidst books and all manner of hand-printed materials, chapbooks, broadsides. The slender, 18-page O (Sand Dollar, 1976) was immediately captivating – the
printed cover, the single-string sewn binding, a artifact of the careful attention of the small press world I was becoming acquainted with. This book was rare – only 376 copies were published
and this one was inscribed by the poet herself (not one of the twenty-six lettered and signed copies, but one inscribed, to my disbelief, to the poet‟s parents). Rare, too, in that it looked far different from any work of Leslie‟s I had seen: traditionally titled and lineated. Because of this, I‟ve always thought of it as very early work – juvenilia, even, though Leslie was in her early
thirties when it was published, earlier in the same year as The Woman who Could Read the
Minds of Dogs (also published by Sand Dollar, in a run of 750, also purchased that day).
Many of the 18 poems in O explore in a particular experience what is often revealed to have been a moment of mundane revelation. Poems observe self interacting with the world, which includes self as mind- and body- phenomenon, and they present in the flat tone of
1 I‟d like to apologize in advance for overlooking the work of any writers have already taken on the topic of this early work; due to time constraints, I wrote this piece quickly, with little time to properly conduct research, and consider it a work-in-progress. I welcome your feedback.
unembarrassed animal observation and juxtapose emotional and intellectual surfaces – features
that have come to distinguish Scalapino‟s work. “The Sights I Saw,” though its title is squarely lodged in the past and thus elicits a temporal distancing that is antithetical to Scalapino‟s more mature writing, offers several glances toward her later poetry. The opening lines assert temporality as a condition: “The sights I saw were all concerned / in some plot, some adventure, some escape / that was changing incessantly.” A later line creates an intriguing schism
between the describing “I” of the poem and the embodied self that contributes to the action that is the phenomenal world: “While I, / who was caught up in a new adventure / (talking unintelligibly) / made constant maneuvers.” While human “maneuvers” would become the focus of her next book, in the following lines we get a glimpse of the complexly layered world to which Leslie‟s poems would become so ardently committed. In “The Sights I Saw,” these “maneuvers” present as a gleeful dance (“now soaring”) that takes place inside the idea and the sound of the engine of an airplane passing overhead. The conflation of joyful levity and weighty mystery is summed up in the poem‟s last word – describing the plane‟s motor as humming “almost
lovingly.” Other poems in this small collection are thus rich with the particulars of thinking and being in the experiential world.
How carefully these poems treat the perceived world, doling out subjective statements and unflinching self-observation: “And I remember all of my struggles / up to several years ago” (“Curiosity”). These poems explore vulnerability, but unlike most juvenilia they press out into the real in multiple directions (to the point of being almost helplessly affected) rather than dwelling in the internal world of the self. One feels the careful handling of information (observation, sensual stimulus, thought) as an intellectual project in making sense, but also in assembling the world to keep it from flying apart. Like much of her early work, the world is experienced through what seems to be an innocence, but is more likely the refrain from making judgment about experienced actions, situations, and emotions – especially those actions the self undergoes. Or
how could one write, unselfconsciously, a poem (“Curiosity”) that describes the intricate process
of eating M&M‟s and evolves into an epiphany about never having understood color? It‟s interesting to think about the implications of presenting one‟s first book, however old one is, as
juvenilia. But it‟s also a quality of this poet‟s work to explore the emotionally complex terrain of the mind free of preconceptions about how it should act, the mind of “A little high school girl, in 2her thirties.” The book‟s inscription, “To Mother and Daddy, Love Leslie” in a slightly rounded script, adds to this sense of youthfulness.
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I have always suspected that this was a forgery. Regardless, these six words are an essential feature of this particular book, and the uncertainty they evoke puts the perception of this work
more on par with my own perceptions of other work by this same author, more tightly weaves it
into the cloth of the whole experience I have of reading her work. For these poems are that much an anomaly in Leslie‟s ouvre, published around the same time as a few other works (The
Woman who Could Read the Minds of Dogs, 1976; Instead of an Animal, 1978; This eating and
walking is associated all right, 1979) later collected in Considering how exaggerated music is
(1982). The resemblances are tauntingly subtle, and Leslie Scalapino did, in effect, replace her O book with O Books, as if to enact a series of re-makings of that first fact.
The title page gathers o‟s; even the sand dollar is an embellished o. Think of it – “beginning”
one‟s published life with the last letter of your last name, as though the inquiry into the world begins where “you” alphabetically “end.”
2 Leslie Scalapino, The Return of Painting, the Pearl, and Orion, p. 63.
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When you think of the extent to which identity is wrapped up in your particular arrangement and amount of letters, and of Leslie‟s own comments about the conflict that arises between being defined or understood as a particular social entity (that is signified by that name) with the 3knowledge that “one is not that entity,” this alphabetic coincidence (?) is interesting, invites
further thought: perhaps these poems are working up to making that leap into intellectually confronting and deconstructing “being” as socially pre-conceived entity. As you read these
poems, you can imagine them wanting to be this confronting; you can think about how the lyric as a form may set one up to desire this sort of thinking even as it makes it very difficult to enact it.
The title poem “O” demonstrates the seeming arbitrariness of a single letter, which becomes the singular shape of a sound explored:
uttered the same O, delivered in a monotone, each O
having the same value.
O, I said after a regular interval. Then O. O.
I can‟t help but think of Elizabeth Bishop‟s “In the Waiting Room” with its own weighty “oh.” The
questions that poem asks, placed in the mind of a seven year old - What is this I that I am? Why
am I an “I” – are also afloat in Scalapino‟s O. Bishop‟s poem seems to present a particularly
Scalapino-esque moment: the young girl in the waiting room experiencing the startled “oh” of
Aunt Consuelo, which is also actually the her own uttered “oh.” (The child‟s) uncertainty about her own experience is linked to her recognition that she lives in a world of language, which is a tool that separates and organizes experience as much as it links distinct and even disparate experiences together:
Without thinking at all
I was my foolish aunt,
I – we – were falling, falling…
A similar sense of the “freefalling” of experiencing pervades the poems in O (absent, of course,
the sort of judgment implied by “foolish” which powerfully fixes and limits experience of self and other). One particularly lovely poem in O of five carefully-paced stanzas, “The Shooting Sound,”
ends with a clutter of similar action words: “Gliding, flying, floating, floating, flying.” The majority
of this poem is concerned with exposition but the point is really to present an experience of language, a moment in which, as “people‟s words / … fly / up to me in my room” through an open window, meaning seems to separate from the “surface” of uttered words. This is yet another glimpse of where Leslie‟s work will go – for one thing, it would stop illustrating, as this
poem does, and start enacting the perceptions of “inside” and “outside,” here represented by the
architecture of the family house, and the “surface” sound and “meaning” of words. The very fact that I can describe this poem as “lovely” suggests how different her goals are in this series of poems. O is perhaps a fine example of the “exaggerated music” she would comment on titling her collection of early works from which she would exclude this very book.
3 “Leslie Scalapino in conversation with Sarah Rosenthal, 11 January 2001.” Jacket 23, August 2003.
This is the book left behind, and it bears witness to a mode of writing explored, its edges carefully fingered, folded, put away in a drawer. What she wanted was, in writing, not to record response to sensation and experience, but the freefalling itself. As she remarked on Philip Whalen‟s work in conversation with Sarah Rosenthal:
[he] was doing something that was incredibly difficult to do, which was not even relying
on resonance, or a sound pattern, or returning to anything, but it‟s just this free fall where
there could possibly be inertia, or there could be anything. It would be whatever would
occur, and you would be seeing what is. And that‟s really mind as phenomena, and
sound as phenomena, and something very dangerous to do as writing. […] I realized
that was something that I wanted to do, that you don‟t encapsulate or make endings to 4things, have ways to take care of it so that it can‟t allow that free fall.
If the recurrence of liberating action words in this book (gliding, floating, soaring) is any indication, there is a desire for motion in O, a desire to get to that place where anything could be
revealed as next, once one had let go of the imperative to "make endings.” It‟s difficult to grasp 5the person engaged in activities and perceptions, “the being person” as Leslie calls it, in the
lyric poems of O. She points out that writing poems in series enable a comparison for “figuring 6out what action is”; and the discrete poems of O defy this; action is located in the past; the
craftedness of stanzas slows down and even fetishizes the concept of writing and reading as processes, disables them from being happenings in “present time,” so that these poems are too quickly memorials to experience, though lovely memorials they are. Perhaps most interesting about reading O is realizing how swiftly Leslie rejected the clunky formality of the poem. Her sense that “the shape or sound of the writing is what the thought is” implies that one can only
think as such – since thinking is, as she has shown us, an action, a motion – in a pre-conceived
form. In the shift from writing discrete poems to the series The Woman who Could Read the
Minds of Dogs, there is a subtle deconstruction of the lyric: poems lose a lot of the particulars of the context to focus on depicting action between individuals and the action of language; the line break get folded into the lines in the form of spaces, and commas become exaggerated, an occasion for careful consideration, as if to encourage the reader to be aware that a comma is being considered (in the action of writing), and that the reader, at the same time, is considering the comma.
After discovering her idiosyncratic long-lined form, she never went back. I like to think that Leslie stopped writing lyric poems not only because they didn‟t fit her mind, but because her power to soar with the world was so intense that the poems would simply loose their grounding, become too lovely – a simple startled gleeful series of o‟s:
When the gift
all we can say
(from “Entente” in O)
4 ibid. 5 “ „We‟re always at war‟: the Worlding of Writing/Reading: An Interview with Leslie Scalapino,” Anne
Brewster, How2, vol. 2., no. 2, 2004. 6 ibid.
Clearly, she wanted to make so much more than the poem as finite, once-opened gift. She
wanted so much more from her readers than an astounded “O.”