How Phenomena Appear To Unfold, essays and poetry by Leslie Scalapino (Litmus Press, 2011); originally published by Sun & Moon Press (1989)
Leslie Scalapino wants to wreck your mind. She really does. Tear it up. Blow it up. Decimate it. So that your mind will not be as before. So that you will never see things as you did before. So that you will see the startling things of this world more clearly. However ordinary and banal they may seem on the surface, however ordinary and banal that bag of popcorn, that cat sleeping on a pillow, that red long sensual tongue, that man’s part about to enter the woman’s erect mound, they’re extraordinary. If they weren’t extraordinary before, they will become extraordinary. Because this is the real business of poetry.
This phrase, “wreck your mind,” pops up several times throughout How Phenomena Appear To Unfold.Scalapino picked it up from Philip Whalen, where the phrase appears in a poem titled “Occasional Dilemmas”: “Olson told us that history was ended. A. - ‘O.K. What is it you think you’re doing?’’ B.– ‘I’m trying to wreck your mind, that’s all.’”
The demolition is not all that malignant. What is meant is quite benign. What is specifically targeted is what Scalapino terms “customary social behavior compartmentalizing experience.” She elucidates Whalen’s intention in her essay “Language as Transient Act, The Poetry of Philip Whalen; Introduction to Philip Whalen’s Collected Poems,” using phrases such as“an examination of mind itself as shape and movement,” “active mind phenomena,” “the mind creating itself,” “mind process unfolding,” “actively constructing the text,” “perception of events are temporary states,” and “active reading that’s transformation by being a continuous nerve movie.” She isn’t just describing Whalen’s poetry, but much of her own. There is one phrase in particular that I thought quite beautifully captured the freshness and vigor of Whalen’s poetry, the fluent, phenomenological thrust of Scalapino’s writing, and the mutual sense of ongoing transition that informs the writing of both:“The text is allowed possibly to ‘fall’ as in movement, as if a waterfall.”
There is a concept in Buddhist philosophy referred to as“free fall.” This refers, as Scalapino observes, “to the Buddhist concept of free-fall which recognizes all supposition, perception, and phenomena as having no actual order of occurrence except that imposed by the mind as its own context.” In other words, “What are you doing right this minute?”
John Lennon’s song, “Imagine,” is a beautiful example of this.
Look at a map: notice the borders? They don’t exist. They have no actual reality. That’s the way the mind tends to be structured. Its preconceptions, its cognitive boundaries, are based on fictions. When poets like Whalen or Scalapino set out to wreck the mind, this is what they have in mind. This is the mind they hope, through the plastique of their writing, to demolish. And when the rubble clears what you have is pure intelligence. Animal fire. The center of the earth in the center of the air.
Scalapino is a philosophical poet. The language of phenomenology imbues her work like sunlight feeds the leaves. Her writing reads like a continuous search, an action, a hunger, an exploration. There is a feeling, a very acute sense of movement beneath the making of her sentences. They seem like antennas. The wiggle of sensitive organs. A continuous probing for a grander liberation, the potential of an exhilarating freedom buried in our nerves under the language of repression, the rote, unexamined language of institutions that is irretrievably remote from life, the language that compartmentalizes, categorizes, organizes, and so colonizes our assumptions and thinking with the ruling paradigm that it separates us from own experience. This morning, hearing the thunder, and the first hushed dropping of the rain, the air smells fresher, and I feel the phenomenology at the heart of Scalapino’s writing a little more clearly.
How Phenomena Appear To Unfold consists mostly of essays about other poets, contemporaries, for the most part, including Philip Whalen, Aaron Shurin, Mei-mei Berssenbrugge, Robert Duncan, Jack Collom, Robert Grenier, Robert Creeley, Lyn Hejinian, Susan Howe, Michael McClure and Bernadette Mayer. There are some excerpts from her creative writing, such as The Front Matter, Dead Souls, which Scalapino described as a serial novel intended for the newspaper, and an assortment of plays, including Sweet, leg, and three versions of Fin de Siècle. There is an excerpt from The Animal is in the World Like Water in Water, with images by Kiki Smith, very odd drawings of lions and leopard-like felines taking bites out of nude women in various postures of seeming repose. The lines of poetry are short and highly abstract, asking questions about spatial orientation and dualities of inside and outside, one of Scalapino’s more persistent philosophical quandaries. Scalapino’s poetry is everywhere operating to break down hierarchy, in somewhat the same fashion that Cézanne wanted everything on his canvas to have equal value, covering his canvases with a mosaic of brushstrokes that called just as much attention to the physical picture plane as the content established behind it. What is particularly odd about the drawings, apart from their crudeness (I wondered if the artist weren’t so exceptionally skilled she was able to draw like someone just learning to draw), is the lack of apparent emotion. The women do not seem panicked or terrified. Not at all. They all appear calm, as if being bitten by a lion or leopard were an ordinary part of everyone’s day. There is something very erotic about these drawings as well. One senses the drawings to be an allegory of sexual intercourse, the inherent invasiveness of the sexual act, and its fusion of pain and pleasure, the keen stinging sensations that excite the body into rapture.
There is a strong sociological intent to Scalapino’s writing. Her primary focus is language, as she observes in her essay on Philip Whalen, “Zen conception of language as itself phenomena: that words are merely labels of entities and all labeled entities are a giant web where the only reality is the imposed inter-relatedness of the entities.” In other words,“language itself is the material of investigation.” Nevertheless, Scalapino is not by any means a disengaged aesthete à la Walter Pater, combating the vulgarizing and polluting agents of industrialism and modern capitalism by taking an art-for-art’s sake stance, but injecting, with the hypodermic of sharp deliberate syntax the powerful stimulants of numina and pneuma, mutiny and space. “The lens examining the lens, the mind examining the mind,” as she expresses this impulse in the title essay,“How Phenomena Appear to Unfold.”
She makes an intriguing remark about Burroughs and his cut-up technique: “Burroughs texts draw on the use of drugs and the method of cut-ups from other sources as a method of bypassing the controls implicit in intuitive, psychological self-expression.” This helps explain my repugnance to the melodrama of confessional poetry and especially to the maudlin, politically correct theater I encounter at the readings of so many younger writers in the new millennium. The so-called “slams.” Christ I hate those things. There is something very controlling about the language employed at these venues, something joyless and self-serving.
When Rimbaud coined the phrase “I is other,” he deliberately used the third person singular rather than the more grammatically correct “I am other.” He did this to foreground the sense of self as a phenomenon, as an ongoing transmutable experience not separate from, but part and parcel with, the forces of nature. Clouds, waves, rivers, storms. The trick is to learn how to experience one’s self not as a static entity but an immediate, living occurrence, a drop of experience in the ocean that is the cosmos, what Scalapino refers to as focusing “on one’s own process of perception while perceiving.” “A characteristic of repression, in reading, is having the assumption that there is a cohesive whole (of social/private/phenomenal reality), which is then the basis of interpretation -- that is, which uses the contents or story element of the poetry, equating that with the poet’s personality then seen as entity.” You can see how this false premise leads not only to repression but commodification and exploitation.
Scalapino observes in an intriguing essay titled “Pattern -- and the ‘Simulacral,’” is a transformative composite separate from individuals.” It is a structural. It is the abstract, ideational edifice into which we are born and become molded into the people we are. Reality is different. Reality, as always, is a specific location and a present time. It is outside history. It is akin to Gertrude Stein’s conception of a continuous present in which everything is unique, beginning again and again and again. “This,” says Scalapino, “leads to lists; which leads to romanticism in which everything is the same and therefore different.” The distinction that is being in this essay is crucial to an understanding of our predicament as human beings in post-capitalist society, and how to avoid getting trapped in what she terms a “canned scenario.”
She segues from a discussion of romanticism to introducing the concept of a ‘simulacra.’ She excerpts a paragraph from Hemmingway’s Green Hills of Africa in which a rhino is hunted down. “In Green Hills of Africa,” she says, “the pattern of experience and the account (expressed as being the mode of ‘genre’) are not parallel; which makes this text similar to the dissimulation and simulacra of artists of the postmodern period.”
Wow. That’s a loaded statement. It wasn’t, at first, entirely clear to me what she meant. I find this is often the case when I’m reading Scalapino. She will say something really intriguing and provocative that I only partially understand. I have to return to it and think about it and eventually a pastiche of associations will form and lead me to different avenues and concoctions of thought. I believe that what is being said here is that experience is germinal. By virtue of what it stores within itself, it is a temporal particular, the coincidence of the universal and particular, the nexus where sensations, indiscriminate and indeterminate, cohere into pattern.
I am also quite certain that Scalapino may also be referring to Jean Baudrillard’s book Simulacra and Simulation, where Baudrillard defines simulation as a form of hyperreality:“Simulation is no longer that of a territory, a referential being, or a substance. It is the generation by models of a real without origin or reality: a hyperreal. . . . It is a hyperreal, produced from a radiating synthesis of combinatory models in a hyperspace without atmosphere. . . . To simulate is to feign to have what one doesn’t have. One implies a presence, the other an absence.”
He makes an important distinction between representation and simulation:
Representation stems from the principle of the equivalence of the sign and of the real (even if this equivalence is utopian, it is a
fundamental axiom). Simulation, on the contrary, stems from the utopia of the principle of equivalence, from the radical
negation of the sign as value, from the sign as the reversion and death sentence of every reference. Whereas representation
attempts to absorb simulation by interpreting it as a false representation, simulation envelops the whole edifice of
representation itself as a simulacrum.
Such would be the successive phases of the images:
it is the reflection of a profound reality;
it masks and denatures a profound reality;
it has no relation to any reality whatsoever:
it is its own pure simulacrum.
“In Michael McClure’s work,” Scalapino observes, “oneself is the ‘simulacra’ identified as an infinite free universe . Identity is defined in his poems in terms of other entities (we are ‘DARK FLESH MUSIC/LAYING OUT A SHAPE,’ we are ‘INSTRUMENTS/THAT/PLAY/ ourselves,’ etc. Therefore the author or the sense of self and the investigation of its desire is the pattern, which is neither present time nor the past. It is potentially infinite in form and number, as points of intuitional apprehension.”
There is a staggering amount of thought and material in this book. Scalapino (whose death is so recent -- she passed away in 2010 -- it remains difficult to think of her as being gone), was a complex figure in contemporary avant-garde writing. There are features of L=A= N=G=U=A=G=E writing in her work, but she was most definitely not a L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poet, and experienced some points of contention with that group. She lauds the Beats and wrote copiously and generously about Philip Whalen (with whom she had a very close relationship, reading to him in his later years when he was blinded by a severe case of macular degeneration), and Michael McClure. But she could not be identified as a Beat. Her writing tended toward phenomenology rather than the more visionary, free-style be bop spontaneity promulgated by Kerouac and Corso, and bore few traces of surrealist fervor or unabashed, devil-may-care exuberance. Her writing is serious, complex, very eccentric, but curiously sober. There are moments of highly graphic erotica, but it has a distant, almost purely anatomical quality to it, focusing on the intrinsic strangeness of it. There are strong Buddhist elements in her work, but she does not outwardly advocate or celebrate Buddhism; it is simply there, a part of her work, moving through its structures like energy moving and shaping a wave. All her work is unique. Unique moments of a quintessentially continuous present.