Ron Silliman, The Age of Huts (compleat), University of California Press, 2007
The sentences in this 311 page book were written between 1974 and 1980.
Thus begins Ron’s preface – in which he refers to the sort of Russian-doll structure that I seem to keep reinventing, and in which he acknowledges that one the four poems in The Age of Huts cycle is itself composed of a series of poems. The author has a penchant for structure – one that is fairly clear / but certainly not monomaniacal – in that it has room for differing sorts of sub-structures / and differing sorts of writings as well.
We might also say that structure is a theme.
And in a (at least one) certain way this is not surprising – in that Ron has to control (or at least to present) an enormous number of sentences which are often almost blindingly similar to one another. So these large containers (as it were) are a necessity.
I’ve been reading these texts as they’ve appeared – so reading them now is sort of (like) meeting a lot of (a lot of) old acquaintances as-one-person (as one person).
What I’ve written thus far amounts to pointing at the clock – but what has been happening while the clock (structure) makes time?
As it happens – one of the texts within The Age of Huts is also called Ketjak.
This Ketjak engenders itself – of course that’s the appearance that it gives to itself / that it’s made to give to itself. Sentences sprout between sentences – other sentences lengthen with added phrases and clauses. This is the world making room for itself – (something which politically ours does not (any longer) tend to do). The sentences both inhabit and create a world – they inhabit the world they create / and create a world to inhabit. This (in a lingering sort of way) keeps us alive.
That world is inhabited by a first person I – I’m unable to find just the right straw hat. – and sometimes by a collection of them called we – We drove through fields of artichokes. But what is this world they inhabit? / why these sentences and not others? Why does Ron? – Write this down in a green notebook. The sentences sort of graze through reality / they accumulate because they have to (I mean – in that there is initially one / and then two / and then more than two / and than many more than that / and so on). They add up to (they add up to (add up to)) a world – they don’t exactly narrate it (at least not in the older senses of what a narrative piece would be like) – although they create a text that is sturdily modern in the way that works of Beckett and Robbe-Grillet (for example) are. They go on.
The sentences – even the ones that get longer as the text progresses (does it progress? – does it progress in any way(s) other than the structural? / the temporal?) – they have a bare simplicity about them. They’re fairly declarative (for the most part) – they tell us stuff about what the author (we presume that) sees / and by doing so they tell us about seeing. For Ron to see is to write.
Lots of sentences (can) go by without the need of much punctuation apart from the capital letter and the period –
A lot of the “sentences” are phrases – they’re images functioning as complete thoughts. Notice that a question mark is not used where it might be – so that even the second sentence quoted is flattened (in that way) / and fits the mold of the sentenceable (of what can be sentences). For this work is about that in a large way – what can be stated without being told (or narrated) – what can be made of the (simple (simple?)) facts / what they can be made to say of and as themselves.
Mallarmé’s assertion that – Everything in the world exists in order to end up in a book. – might be quoted here with some pertinence.
It’s a kind of softening proof that the world only exists because we see it. The I and the we are actually more-or-less unnecessary as counters in the world (no more important than anything (any thing) else) – but as counters of it (of (of it)) they are paramount. That is – by a curious twist (of the modern moment) why they are (need be) so seldom mentioned.
This author makes comments as well – The formal beauty of a back porch. This in a certain way is as explicit (as comment) as a painting by Edward Hopper – the same volume of presence as comment. It may not be as pictorially exact / or as evocative (at least not this example) – but it says what it says about something (and in doing so it says that it says it – it says that it can say) – and an accumulation of these gestures toward the world becomes the world. Wittgenstein said that – The world is all that is the case. – and Ron keeps proving it a sentence at a time.
But the question arises – Is the world all that need (need (all that need)) be the case?
And – (have I already said this) – the world begets the world. Do things get better? – no / I don’t think so (to think so would be the only way to make them so). But do things tend to live? – yes / they do (or at least they have until fairly recently) – and this writing is a kind of proof of that – or at least a companion to its ongoing possibility (possibilities).
Perhaps the world is not all that is the case – but it’s an utterable fact that we can make it what it is – at least we can say so (and perhaps that’s all it is (or ever will be) to write). We’re hampered by reality – writing lets / gets us around that somewhat (or creates a parallel illusion in which it is possible to do so). A white bowl of split pea soup is set upon the table. – Eat.
Language is always proof that language decays. He hit the bricks, took a vacation, got rolled up, popped, as they say. As the readers we intuit what it might mean to hit the bricks / we know (in a sense (in what sense?)) by comparison) what it means to take a vacation / we know what it means to get rolled (something that usually gets happened to drunks) / but who calls that getting popped, as they say (and who are that they?)? Here – in one sentence – the language is expostulating in differing ways – it’s speaking (its mind) phrase-by-phrase in ways that have (and bear (and can bear)) differing weights. One sentence – about one event – but taken apart it takes that event apart. And how are we left? – at least a little bit uncertain – in spite of the declarative nature of the statement. Even a simple (“simple”) statement declares itself to be letting us (the readers) get a little bit lost (in the sentence). It’s we who are being sentenced.
All the word’s a stage / and we but players in it.
All the world’s a stage / and we but layers in it.
All the word’s a stage / and we but layers in it.
There’s something rather placid and flat about the sentences (in (in?) them?). This is enhanced – or perhaps exacerbated – by the fact that as the text grows many sentences and phrases and clauses get repeated. But it is also a function of the fact of the repetitiveness of declarative sentence after declarative sentence after declarative sentence after. And perhaps what is seen is more likely to excite the senses than it is to excite the sentences. Although Francis Ponge certainly proved that anything written about well (soap / pine trees / oranges / potatoes / cigarettes) could endure as literary artifact.
There isn’t much feeling expressed in this text. There are lines such as – The half-formed friendship before he died left her with a taste of unfinished business. – that carry the hint of feeling with them / or allude to an event that would seem to be accompanied (usually) by feeling. Or the line quoted above – How the heel rises and the ankle bends to carry the body from one stair to the next. – would at least suggest that it might be accompanied by excitement – but that feeling itself (if it existed) isn’t given to us as such. Everything is seen. This absence of feeling in a certain way amplifies our experience (being readers) as voyeurs – (in other words) the absence of feeling accompanying the experiences leaves us in the position of being able to only look on. We are not so much implicated – as tolerated-into-the-equation-of-the-writing.
The last paragraph of this text is fifty pages long / half the length of the entire text (which consists of eleven paragraphs). What does this mean? It means that the paragraphs rather quickly grow into something massive. It stresses (in an empirical way) the diligence with which structure has produced this text. The text moves rather quickly from motion toward solidity – as if revolving more slowly in a hurry (if you get what I mean). It brings the text up against itself – and us with it. It lets us know what it would mean to go on / what it would mean for the text to go on. It is a statement about economy (or economics (at any rate)). It is the way he wrote it.
Sunset Debris is a single paragraph (a chunk) of language. Every sentence ends with a question mark – as if those few that had been left out of Ketjak somehow lingered strenuously in the mind of the author.
The first questions are at least tinged with the sexual –
What does it mean to live in a world of questions? We’re all inhabited by them / all the time. The major questions (Who am I? Why am I here? Why is there suffering? Why will I die?) turn into spiritual practice (or religion) for many / into therapy for some / into art for a few. It is (perhaps) as if a question (a questioner) begins every day – and as if it is a question (that questioner) that ends it too. Indeed – the questions here are said to occur at sunset (at day’s end) and to litter that time of day.
Or we might read these questions as having been extracted from the statements of the day (the days) – these are the questioning outtakes – a collection of snapshots of a particular sort. Isn’t art (of whatever sort) a set of such outtakes (though not necessarily of the questioning sort)? These are polaroids that have caught the sun at a particular angle – the questioning angle – and shone it on the events of the day.
We might say that life is a question – and art is one of its answers (one of its persistent answers). So – to answer it with questions? – what could be more honest in a way (and more thorough – in what is perhaps another (and in what is perhaps the same) way)? We all go the way of the (big) question – in the end – don’t we?
Although it is interesting that Sunset Debris does not assail the “big” questions. Questions such as – Is he the father? – or – Why didn’t I go back to Pasco and become a cop? – or – Have you noticed how there are no fathers in the park playing ball with their daughters? – sort of top the register (at least one of the registers). Or the questions (occurring toward the end) – What if each word had a purpose? What is a construct? … What is literature? – do approach the philosophical (or what we have been taught to think of as the philosophical). And there is the rather serious (and perhaps emotion-laden (considering what is being written)) – Is poetry simply another channel for one’s careerism?
The questions don’t form the basis of anything. They (just (justly)) form the basis of questioning. As if that’s as far as there is to go – these are the quotidian questions of someone (of Ron who wrote them) – but also (apparently) of any number of people (in that they don’t cohere as the personality (say) of “a narrator” or “a protagonist”). These questions step outside (just outside?) the range of the introspective moments of a text by (say) Nathalie Sarraute – perhaps that’s why (perhaps it is in that way that) they linger as the poetic and not the narrative. They make a moment – they don’t describe (or descry) it.
In fact – they are quite accepting – they are all accepting of what they state (of their state). There is no disgruntlement here – in that way (in a certain way) these questions are statements (in that they don’t contain their opposite). A question is not a curse after all / it is an explosion of possibility (although these questions are fairly small explosions (in that sense they approach (over and over) being statements of fact)).
And there are questions that certainly push the quotidian – Did you see the jar filled with ears on his mantle? – this one broaching the surreal while apparently asking for an explanation of a quotidian sort (which is perhaps what the surreal is). Or – Does the sky in your mind have a limit? – which broaches a kind of Magritte-like presence (or is it an absence?) – while lingering as a philosophical statement as well (“everything exists in the mind alone” – to summarize one Buddhist tenet).
Is a question even a thought? Is it an even thought? How is it not? Does it express (in its own way) certainty? – and how is the certainty expressed in a question different from that in a statement? Isn’t a question also a statement of fact? – the fact of its question (the fact of that)?
There are approximately 1, 750 questions in this text. Is that how many it takes to describe the world? – a world? Do they do that? Are they even questions? – or are they affirmative sentences (begging – in some solid way) to be answered?
The Chinese Notebook. 223 numbered paragraphs – the longest of which is half-a-page long. Why 223? – I have a feeling Ron wrote to the end of the notebook (but that is one author’s notions of structure being applied to another’s (may well be 223% wrong!)).
Here there are both statements and questions. What distinguishes it from the two previous texts (structurally) is that each paragraph stands as a unit – the text doesn’t have the same kind of ongoingness (cf unstoppingness) as the previous two. And there is a slightly greater tendency toward the ruminative / the philosophical – as in –
I (of course – just for the sake of contrariness (or advancement)) – would suggest that this is urban planning (in that it controls (to some extents)) how we experience the urban. But that is another matter (is it?).
In this text we feel that Ron is going after something – more than just getting it down. It is as if because he has taken notes (as it were) he must be pursuing some understanding / some truth / some moment(s) of truth (I always use the word truth (ill)advisedly). Here he has marked his path – he has numbered his steps – he has notated the length of time he has spent at each spot. And – although there is little to connect them (at least linearly) – this numbering gives them a kind of unity that they wouldn’t otherwise have. Each has its reference point. This numbering of the thought episodes is also an indication (a reminder) that thinking takes time.
But can thoughts be numbered? What kind of isolation do they experience when we do that? – if that is what they experience. After all – thinking is non-stop (more representative of / represented by the onslaught of sentences (Ketjak) or questions (Sunset Debris) experienced earlier in this book). But (again) – this text is a Notebook. As evidenced by – This is not speech, I wrote it.
And there are statements (here) that reflect upon its own project (and upon those already encountered) –
But these specific statements don’t apply equally / or unilaterally to this text (or to the others). My own take would be this – it does lack (for the most part) surprise / it doesn’t lack form (structure is almost an obsession) / theme is treated with as much permission as possible / development is only addressed (or hinted at) for moments (and then abandoned) / it doesn’t reject interest although it certainly doesn’t encourage it in any of the manifold ways typical of many literatures / it does examine itself with curiosity. Will it survive? Read on.
In Sunset Debris the author is looking at his own work. Eg (a few notes appended) –
16. If this were theory, not practice, would I know it?
22. The page intended to score speech. What an elaborate fiction that seems!
Here fiction is a bit of a pun – a slight joke.
30. How is it possible I imagine that I can put that chair into language? There it sits, mute. It knows nothing of syntax. How can I put it into something it doesn’t inherently possess?
Here again there is humor (at the chair’s expense). But there is also a sort of anthropomorphizing (de-anthropomorphizing?) stance – it’s based upon knowing something that we actually don’t (don’t) know – the nature of chairness.
37. Poetry is a specific form of behavior.
Is it? – specific to whom? / to what occasion? / what purpose? / etc. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that it is a specified (specified (a specified)) form of behavior. And of course it is we who struggle – through it – to misbehave.
45. The word in the world.
50. Ugliness v. banality. Both, finally, are attractive.
OK – but what a (contracted) range!
55. The presumption is: I can write like this and “get away with it.”
58. What if there were no other writers? What would I write like?
This is the writerly equivalent of that old saw about – If a tree falls in the forest and there’s no one there to hear it does it make a sound. (Unfortunately – poets are best able to answer that.)
96. I want these words to fill the spaces poems leave.
This is the attribution of attention toward the Platonic forms. (The reality is – there is no reality.)
97. The assumption is, language is equal if not to human perception per se, then to what is human about perception.
This statement should be starred / underlined / italicized / and memorized – by anyone wanting to understand Ron’s work. It speaks his own understanding of that work most fully – and in it he isn’t wrong / he (shows that he) knows what he’s doing. For authors to understand with considerable accuracy the nature of their own work is actually a fairly rare thing – and might be what separates (as an attribute) poets (and a few philosophers) from those harvesting in other fields of language and thought (forgive the redundancy (it’s implicit (implicated) in the profession (in what we profess))).
103. The order of this room is subject-verb-predicate.
Of course (as I am (perhaps) over-fond of saying) – that is not true. Or is it? Is there a room apart from our thinking it? There is a sect (section) of Buddhism that asserts that the world is created by the mind alone. I think this would be a fairly popular belief among writers if they looked into it a little more – for if the world is a construct of the mind alone then words go a long way toward constructing it – and this then provides (or at least does something more than hint at) a validation for writing (as an accurate motive).
122. There is no direction. Only distance.
There is no distance – there is only thought / the thought of distance (cf above).
127. The words are not “out there.”
Where are the words? Be careful – to answer that question is to stop reading. (Reading is not something we know how to do.)
156. What if I told you I did not really believe this to be a poem? What if I told you I did?
Only the elusive would care. (Language never eludes us / it is just there – we elude it (that is how we make poetry).)
63. What you read is what you read.
No – never. (If anything were that simple we wouldn’t know how (how (we wouldn’t know how)) to read.)
222. Language hums in the head, secretes words.
223. This is it.
You may be able to tell that I am most
engaged by this piece of writing – because it engages thought
/ and not (only (only?)) the perceptual spheres. Thought is where
we lose ourselves – and therefore it is the (only (the only?))
place where we can find ourselves. But no – we can find ourselves
(what is) in what is perceived (too).
2197 is a collection of thirteen poems – which nonetheless limit themselves to the use of three alternating structures.
Some are written in sort of clusters of short paragraphs –
Each poem written in this form consists of thirteen stanzas (“stanzas”) of thirteen indented sentences.
Some are written in flush-left prose stanzas –
Each poem in this form consists of thirteen paragraphs of thirteen sentences.
And the third type utilizes lines that step down whenever there is another sentence –
And (you guessed it) – thirteen stanzas (“stanzas” – or clusters) of thirteen sentences each.
Because there are thirteen poems of three types the last poem is of the same type as the first – making a kind of fold-over loop. This is a kind of completeness Ron always aims for – one way or another.
Note 81 from The Chinese Notebook has some bearing on the openingness of these poems – I have seen poems thought or felt to be dense, difficult to get through, re-spaced on the page, two-dimensional picture plane, made airy, “light.” How is content altered by this operation? We could read the poems in 2197 as an effort to answer this question (at least thirteen ways (or is it – at least two thousand one hundred and ninety-seven ways?). Are these then – thirteen ways of looking backward? – at that question?
For the first time in The Age of Huts these poems allow space for types of elision and inconclusiveness that hadn’t happened before. Sentences can get truncated – and (thereby) left more open. Although everything is still (and always) of the nature of statement and question – no loose frilly or failing ends here. But the sentences are often compacted by their having been folded back upon (or into) themselves – a density erupts. The statements (the things said (things (things (the things said)))) are permitted to be calculatedly elusive – Seal as form, as loss of guntower. And (as a result) particularly in the looser of these formulations – more feeling intrudes (impedes) than had previously been the case. The poems are (most simply) more lyrical.
The whole is nevertheless peppered with moments of awareness of the type that might have edged its way wholesale into The Chinese Notebook (eg) –
But generally the whole of any one of these poems is allowed a greater cacophony (a greater range) than had been the others. These are more wind-swept (more mind-swept?) – more taken with spaces beyond the attentive eye. They speak (therefore) more back at themselves. They don’t so much utter – as be utter.
And throughout them all – phrases and concerns re-utter (themselves). These concerns might be felt to be obsessive (and I’m not saying they aren’t) except for the fact that they’re spaced well apart from their reappearances / they tend to recur in (slight) variations of the previous wording / and the whole tenor of the whole thing (in which they are (as it were) hung) is flat enough to keep them from inflating.
It’s as if Ron is always thinking language. Is that what poets do? – Is that what poetry does? Ron’s is of a dense and impacted sort – yet willing (for all that) to admit the reader on her or his own terms. Of course we’re changed by being there (instantly I would say) – and there’s no getting back. But that is of the nature of a noise that we inhabit – and (in this case) that would have us do so.
What does it mean to write something like? –
Is this (simply (simply?)) a “poetic” way of saying that they make waxed matches in Mexico? Are we intended then to think of NAFTA when we read this? – or would that thought only come to those of us who know something of Ron’s politics? Or were those lines created for the sake of the words (as somewhat separate entities) and sounds (as somewhat separate entities) in them? Is it a sort of brief filigreed collage – then appended to / with others to form the stanza – and then with others to form the poem? The poem would then be a set of thirteen chunks (variously formed) of thirteen mini-collage elements. And that is (frankly) sort of what this is – these words and phrases and clusters of same have sort of been left out in the rain (and / or otherwise) to decay – they bear their own half-lives within them in a way that the earlier works in The Age of Huts did not. In this way they implicate us in a further way in them – in that our own decay is not only imminent but implicit – and our own construction of / as multiples is something we experience even when we fail to see or think it.
Whether or not these takes (takes) were actually collaged from larger more traditional language constructs is something we may not come to know. As for me – I’m doubting it – I think we have these pretty much as written / Ron does his thinking in advance. Also – the lines sing as they do – and that would tend to be not (or less) the case if they’d been much fiddled with.
These poems are probably the most exiting things in the book (me speaks) – the most excitable. They furl over / and into themselves – they are a kind of quake – a mouthing of moments worth asking – the shrill (shrilling) keep of a stance. They wake us – they wake us up. This means no offence to the other texts – but these flake – and thereby allow more felt in (and out) – and that (that too) is a /means a lot. There is more of a furor here – more life gets engendered (not just spoken of) / given out / where it takes root.
Ron has appended to (or included with) these four texts – two that are shorter and that he calls Satellite Texts – Sitting Up, Standing, Taking Steps; and, BART. Each is a single paragraph / a block of prose.
The first is (for the most part) a list of discernable objects –
But the sentences go on to remind us that this is not one description of one room – for soon we have – Slice of toast on a saucer on a corner of the wood table. – to suggest that either there is another table being described or that time has passed since the first was recently alluded to (for now there is something on top of it other than the wine bottle which had been there alone). There are also phrases like Pornographic motherhood. that themselves step outside of any conceivable room description unless we take as implicit to it the mind of someone inside it (the one describing it?). And then (eg) In a heliport by the sea wall in the fog. takes us well outside the room in which we might have imagined ourselves – and either through reverie or memory (relative to that room) allows us the elsewhere of the texts. What one is left with (really) is a kind of swiftness – phrases almost falling over themselves as they find their way out of the author’s mind.
BART (the Bay Area Rapid Transit system where Ron lived when he wrote it) – is a single twelve-page-long sentence with phrases separated by commas.
And it ends –
– thus finishing a trip of approximately seven hours.
The musculature of this prose is what’s seen / and imagined around one – as the author uses his day off. Although a work of labor it becomes! There is room for thoughts of other sorts than sense impressions – memories and comments of the author to that self. In this text the authorial presence is made uncharacteristically strong by the presence of the I (the I / eye) throughout. It’s a kind of a mad dash of a way of ending the book – and of reminding us that we’ve been invited along from the start.
copyright © Alan Davies 2007