Sarah Rosenthal, Sitings

reviewed by Jono Schneider

"Sitings" refers to objects or events seen: a witness to action or the passing of action. The actual and the real to the extent that these can be defined by "she who has seen."

She who has seen
always remembers even if not what's seen
which is remembered...

... at an opening whose opposing isn't closing nor forced
closer which is remembering through recognizing you.
(Schneider, She Who Has Seen)

Like her 1999 book, not-chicago (Melodeon), Rosenthal's Sitings is populated by stray voices, odd figures, alien subjects whose presence fascinates us not because of the way they live (we don't know how they live) but because of the things they say. It's also possible that no one speaks, that language doesn't speak, that the speech act itself is speaking instead.
The speech act itself is speaking -- when speech happens in writing, it's an experience of distance that moves through (and continues to distance) the ghost of the written word. Deconstruction was a critical confirmation of a creative fact -- that language is unstable, that a text is was always different, manipulable -- because language has forever been unsure, unconvincing, unconvinced, in the mouths of speakers we can neither hear nor see. And yet our belief hinges upon what they say because we cannot see or hear them, we trust that the words they speak are representative of who they say they are. We trust language for what it says about character and use language to mistrust character. But now I'm speaking about novels.

I'm arguing that it's more useful to think about how a character is constructed in a novel than about the voice which carries the poem in speaking about Rosenthal's writing.

The five sections of Sitings are each a kind of blankness -- that of a character presented solely through the language that comprises thought as speech. "Religiosity" is a series of letters to the alphabet from an "I" observing the "shifting shafts of shining" language taken from the picturesque world of the real. Here's an arbitrary cross-section of sentences:

Dear A,

Time dries, reality fingers. A car alarm punctures the power-line-moon-map you created and we laid out.

Dear B,

Lost feels good to you when you eat.

Dear C,

We agree on ten minutes. In that space my eggs grow wings. The relation of each to a replaceable third forms the core of this dilemma.

Dear E,

Everyone at this party designs something. Think of it as a story I didn't get around to writing.

Dear F,

A correspondent resistance, a shadow box. I like to see you all lined up in a museum.

Dear I,

Towel becomes curtain, thank tacks. What happened to the "d" in "David." Who became the little dead neighbor. Who broke stones. Jew. Pedagogy. 22.

These are some of the poem's lines in a cross-cut fashion -- the poem resists the operation, even toughens up under the scalpel, because it's built on the tension of associative speech, where words are doors opened to rooms whose windows fill the room with the light of thought.

As if the mind needed the eye
when writing a poem.
(David Meltzer, Prayerwheel 2)

The active nature of thought moves quickly from room to room, and the "I" of thought engages the other, the "you" on the other side of speech.

If prose is the form in which a writer attempts a novel, can a novel exist as a result of the force that turns history into a pure voice that speaks but does not tell?
(Schneider, ..But I Could Not Speak...)

The "you" is the aim of our speech, the thing to which we speak, the object of the character's subject made clear in the light of desire, the end that communication seeks.

Thus it is only by our passion for speech that we evade change and risk one another so as to wipe again the surface clean.
(Renee Gladman, Arlem)

"They Squeeze Us Together in Here" kidnaps the lyric and makes off with its prize in order to do away with the hierarchy of the poet as speaker and sage. The only knowledge attained here is the burlap bag where the ransom money must be placed in unmarked bills. The reader pays the bribe to access the paginated world of the novelist's pen;

The novel tells the adventure of interiority; the content of the novel is the story of the soul that goes to find itself, that seeks adventure in order to be proved and tested by them, and, by proving itself, to find its own essence.
(George Lukacs, The Theory of the Novel)

the reader clutches the burlap in the fingers of her eyes, and narrative marks

According to John Lyons, a "marked" word is a "thematically non-neutral utterance." (Lyons,Semantics) As if language had a choice in building its own distance.

the "us" of certain bills by folding back the corners:

disciplined images
your operator
as if goodbye
as if a lost form
goodbye to all the lost forms
grief as an ethic or a stupendous epic

save the dress
the purple border
one step from roses

The reader gets more than what she pays for -- a novelistic assertion of the real, that language is forever uttered by a speaker in need of words. Language is the result of silence: the two "as if" statements (the perennialism of philosophy,

I put a picture up on a wall. Then I forget there is a wall. I no longer know what there is behind this wall, I no longer know there is a wall, I no longer know this wall is a wall, I no longer know what a wall is.
(George Perec, The Apartment)


which attempts to answer for silence with the explanatory text of speech) become, in the mouth of a romantic subject, a wistfully blown kiss in the direction of art. But this parting of the ways also signals the death of the romantic subject, which is a fictional creation, a figure constructed out of the desire to see she who is standing there at the center of the world, imbibing it with meaning.

In the tables of distance and direction of the
principal portion of the inhabited world.

Proof: no such things exist.
Proof: skill of artifice or tilting, empire and colony.
(Myung Mi Kim, Thirty and Five Books)

Rosenthal's new book is a mark of legible meaning made clearly by subjects confident in their ability to speak and create the mystery of speech. What remains is the ambiguity of assertive character, attained by writing holes in the world:

i met ruth
she told me the knowledge
it was more like a conversation
many errors were corrected
many more were created
ruth ended with a riddle
i have recorded everything here