(Reflections on Noise that Stays Noise: Essays, by Cole Swensen, University of Michigan Press, 2011)

 

Unfolders like Plato open the possibility of transcendence out of immanence, steepling the vertical out of the horizontal. By contrast, folders, beginning with pre-Socratic physicists, with their tactile nights, their sacred inconstancies, their voluptuous circulation in what Deleuze calls "the circuits in the immensity of the virtual," crimp the horizontal over on itself like a paper plane. They are happiest with striations, sideways visitations, war, transparent "fictions." Cole Swensen is one of the notable American folders. Her poems go whip, whoosh, and the folding is done. Her eyes, her mind, her heart, her typography, are all for the immateriality of the fold. No wonder she's fascinated by ghosts (see Gravesend, her new collection of poems from the University of California Press): ghosts, after all, are caught in the folds of Being beyond their time, where everything is constantly recast, like dice; but, since they don’t want anyone to have their number, as it were, they appear only in the instant of vanishing (vanishing again). How satisfactory to Swensen is the die that conceals its number.

Poetry as such is, of course, a phenomenon of the fold. In it, images and ideas couple without reprieve. This couple is irreconcilably estranged in Mallarmé’s “Un Coup de des,” about which Swensen has written a brief essay of sublime authority. Mallarmé’s poem famously strains to dilute the physical in an effort to escape it altogether: it is the greatest anti-fold in modern poetry. With its kinetic but strung-out typography and syntax, its language moon-jellying across the white seas of its pages, it prays to be gone even from itself. Here, as Swensen notes, the page is revolutionary, “a locus of action that does not represent or record the poem, but enacts it.” As a result, the noise natural to poetry, its unclarifiable and irreducible material, including its sounds; the “noise that stays noise,” to quote the title of Swensen’s new collection of essays, quadruples: “we get several poems on each spread . . . the poem is never-ending because our active gaze is constantly rewriting it by taking its elements in different orders.”

These multiple possible readings are, I suggest, mutually indifferent, not folds. If the poem is “more insistent on the physical reality of the word than poetry that offers relatively fewer reading options,” as Swensen says, the words have none of the truth and vividness that arise from an actual impression of the objects. The syntax and figures adamantly counter the words' materiality by being diffusiveplaguingly so for the reader, assuagingly so for the poet.

Swensen doesn’t focus on Mallarmé’s drive to dissolve the earth, his dream of a constellatory elevation; she is caught up, instead, in his poem’s surface complexities, its techniques of infinitization. For these can be brought over, adapted, into modern poetry, poetry like her own; and indeed they were so adapted beginning in 1911, when the hourglass that had bottomed out in Mallarmé’s pivotal combination of oldfashioned metaphysics and new-fangled method was turned over, putting particles and mass again at the top. But now where was infinity? It lay between the particles, as Rimbaud (and earlier Blake) had thought.

In Noise that Stays Noise, Swensen herself hunts interstitial infinities in finite scapes, in techniques of combination, in margins, and much more: she searches out a broad array of possibilities with remarkable tenacity. To adapt a line of Vallejo’s, she turns up the collar of her overcoat, not because it is beginning to snow, but so that it can begin to snow. Challenging herself to feel, so as to conceptualize, and vice versa, the immensity in the caesuras between things, the teasing proximities inside the folds, she attends keenly, for instance, to the mutual alterations of poetry and visual art, “their new interactions.” She thinks toward and reacts to the “third” created when A and B are interfolded (or, in the case of margins and seriality, juxtaposed). In the third, Two increases infinitely not to Three, that clunky, merely additive higher, but to a nameless further of relation just beyond a finite, definitive exposition. Swerving from the great tradition that equates Being with Thinkingthe tradition stemming from DescartesSwensen locates Being, though she doesn’t use the old-timey word, in the gap between thought and thought, thing and thing, the said and the seen, in unthinkable immanence.

The modern alternative to a purely empty infinity a la Mallarmé is a kind of elusive density—an, as it were, Higgs-boson infinity. In exemplification, Noise that Stays Noise goes one by one, essay by essay, through various topics to find entry into the non-space of the third. These include fractal structurations, seriality, geometric shapings of otherwise linear texts (as in Susan Howe), fragmetation and typographical skips (relentless in Swensen’s other new poetry collection, Stele, out from Post-Apollo), margins, handwriting (remember handwriting?), and literal folds, as in Blaise Cendrars’s 21-times accordion-folded poem La Prose du Transsibérien, et de la petite Jehanne de France. A complete list would be long, but I should at least add translation, at which Swensen herself, as everyone knows, excels.

Swensen the prose writer is in one respect the antithesis of Swensen the poet: she has a positive passion to lay out a subject, map it with paths, explain it. Little by little, her unfoldings expose each topic to the steady bright light of her intellect. Never mind that "the between," "the third," the juices and perils of infinitization, cannot really be mapped, held out whole in writing’s hand. Ideas about them, investigations of them, can be multiplied persuasively, and Swensen’s virtuosity in this department is unsurpassed. For “virtuosity” read a remarkable fertility of insights, and both density and rapidity of exposition. Think of fresh things to say about handwriting or folds or margins or the crossing of text with image, or whatever, and Swensen will likely match you and raise you five. Not that she's competitive: simply, she’s a force; she can’t turn off the stream of her perceptivity.

She is drawn toward penetrable, fathomable surfaces (“Albiach never covers new ground, but expands indefinitely within her established boundaries, mining the depth of surfaces”); but perhaps her greatest delight is to experience and think about the split and attraction between saying (reading’s saying) and seeing. Take Cendrar’s fold- and-color collaboration with Sonia Delauney in La Prose du Transsibérien, or Swensen's own poems with train-window rows of (literal train window) photographs on pp. 241- 248 in this issueimages as blurred as the poet's syntax, in "a gentle loss of form": in them, the addition of a visual counterpart to the text prompts two different pathways of the brain to light up simultaneously. (Such novelly complex combinations in the always-already-complex folds of the cortex may have an evolutionary potential.) The outside space of seeing becomes co-present with the inside-space of reading “on the line of the fold,” as Deleuze puts it in Foucault. If to think is itself already “to fold, to double the outside with a coextensive inside,” as Deleuze says, then reading while seeing a visual text is a concrete kind of thinking. For Swensen, as for Deleuze, the truth is in relation. She likes work with relation all over it, like strawberry seeds.

Here is a sampler of her observations along “the line of the fold,” the line of intimate if confrontational relation. (Since each little gathering of statements is a patchwork, I shall omit quotation marks.)

(1) On folds themselves: The fold confuses the outside/inside distinction; it reveals each as contingent, and always apt to find itself the other. . . . A fold often creates what it hides by the act of hiding it. . . . The accordion fold . . . allows for different aspects to be hidden or visible at different times; it creates a constantly changing configuration of fields, a dynamic of presence and absence. . . . Physically the fold is constantly expanding, conceptually it has no substance, . . . and in that way it is metaphysical.

(2) On white space: White space becomes the silent medium that connects and supports the more volatile, vulnerable tissue of language, even as it also becomes the absence within the sign system that connects the work to the reading body, the body that is absent from the abstraction of language, the body that recognizes itself in the skeletal white spaces.

(3) On words vs. colors: A word is up and running because of its relative specificity. But color, line, etc. are more open-ended, they run in place. They don’t go anywhere except deeper into themselves, not out along an associated chain.

(4) On handwriting:: Handwriting allows us to both read and see at the same time . . . [It] is a site of the eruption of the semiotic. . . . Type masks language’s inherent ambiguity. . . . [It] tells us that language is clear, uniform, and instantly decipherable.

(5) On margins: A margin is an inhabitable dividing line. . . . Margins destabilize the text; they invite the reader to carry the book on to the future, to differ, to underscore.

(6) On the new ekphrasis: Mei-mei Berssenbrugge's Sphericity breaks down the division between art and daily living . . . . Instead of using visual art as subject matter, works such as [hers] increasingly use it as a model for formal construction, thus underscoring the arts as modes of thinking and perceiving, rather than as static objects.

(7) On connection: In the late postmodern moment connection is becoming more and more equivalent to meaning.

(8) On seriality: seriality demands an undoing reciprocal to its doing. . . . In a true series, every item is numbered 1[,]. . . reenacting the act of re-beginning. . . . Seriality is an impulse, not for progress, but . . . for process in which nothing is produced but the process itself.

From these few quotations alone, one can gauge Swensen’s penchant for immanent infinities. Beware, binaries and entrenchments. Hers is the intelligence of the modern.

 

 

 

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