Saturday, September 27, 2003

Blogging is both incestuous & serendipitous. Chris Murray commented upon my own remarks concerning genre in response to my forthcoming appearance in Double Room. She also assigned a work from Double Room to what I think must be her advanced exposition class at the University of Texas – Arlington, Anthony Tognazzini’s “I’d Heard She Had a Deconstructive Personality.” Obviously I had to read that – as in fact you should also. Click over there, but come right back.


Tognazzini’s work is a lot of fun. Just 25 sentences (or sentence fragments) long, not including that title (which certainly can be read as a first sentence to the piece), it does a deft job of setting up a frame of reference – an unnamed female – then providing a good deal of detail that suggests both the course of a relationship & layers of identity that are only partly peeled away during the course of the text. In general – as Murray’s students saw right away – Tognazzini uses the exceptionally short fragments of the opening line to set up the pacing of the work: rapid, open to radical shifts, yet inherently “coherent” because so many of the cognitive frames appear to identify a female. Thirteen of the sentences, a majority, actually use either she or her – fourteen, if you include the title.


When you think about the absolute dominance of those pronouns, it is evident that this is a work predominantly of/about character. The reality, of course, is that it’s at least theoretically conceivable that Tognazzini came upon these exact sentences in some procedural manner, such as taking sentences involving those sentences off the internet and building the piece (& the person) around that, a variant of the flarf device of Google sculpting. If you read Tognazzini’s comments in Double Room, it seems likely that he envisions this as fiction, albeit precisely of that “flash fiction” mode that descends from the soft surrealists of the Sixties (Tate, Knott, Simic, etc.).


This reminds me of not one, but two works that I wrote in the early 1970s, roughly as I was getting ready (& starting) to write Ketjak. One, Sitting Up, Standing, Taking Steps, was a short (for me) prose poem. It was originally published in chapbook format by Tuumba Press & I was stunned to discover that it had been awarded a Pushcart Prize for (drumroll here) fiction.* Nothing about the piece was in any way fictive. It had neither character, nor plot, nor even verbs. It was, in fact, a long paragraph entirely composed of sentence fragments. But I was now a fiction writer, award winning even, and was hired as such as a visiting lecturer by UCSD in 1982 (I had to insist that I be allowed to teach a poetry course, which the then chairman of literature program thought rather curious).


The other was a work that I wrote about one year earlier in which I was trying to construct character from pronouns, specifically the first-person singular. This work, “Berkeley,” first appeared in This 5 and was later reprinted in Michael Lally’s anthology, None of the Above. Here is that work:


                         I thought you might be here

                I was alone and it was almost two

                                 I have enjoyed my lunch

             I knew right away I made a mistake

                   I glanced back once

                            I mean it

                               I thought so

                I had been actually invited

                      I drew my jacket sleeve across my wet mouth

                                   I wasn't even trying

                                      I told him

                  I'll try to let you know

            I watched some piano lessons

               I was a very tough cookie

  I laughed

      I thought I'd tell you

               I haven't hurt him

   I should be too vulgar

         I know where I am

                  I do decline to be left

      I haven't had the time

I'm going to find out about you

               I never thought of that

                     I better have some of that wine

                                  I'm serious

                            I hope so

                               I'm red and brown

                   I would take you to a balcony

                        I swear it

                                 I know who you are

              I knew there was something and opened the window

                I went on up and unlocked the door

          I went out and shut the door

    I put the lamps out and sat by an open window

             I sat down and looked at him

       I sat down and took one of the cigarettes

    I stepped inside the office and picked up the mail

                       I worked there

                    I see

                       I changed my mind

                I just feel that way

                          I want to be sick

             I never said anything

                             I like this rug

                                 I fuck too

                       I am, a stride at a time

                          I came through the museum

                 I was not afraid

                    I could not save her

          I fell asleep on the sand

              I have reasons

               I'm not thinking yet

                    I don't care for the idea

   I shake your hand and even embrace you

      I've been wondering something else

I wish I could have missed this

         I think she needs more time

                  I think we never used the word

                        I do

                           I know

                     I'll meet that

             I knew no one in the place

                  I don't play well

          I'm always willing

                I have to go soon

                      I put out my hand

                               I believe it did

                            I am glad you are at home

        I asked him what might be his immediate purpose

           I'd like to know the reasons

                  I could hear the many voices now

    I'll tell you God's truth

               I don't go at all any more

                         I look behind me

  I care not to perform this part of my task methodically

         I survived myself

                I'll try the bench here

             I don't see how I can help you

     I detest it

        I want to see which side will grow best

  I want to redeem myself

     I can shoot you

  I've no idea really

     I should say it is not a mask

        I must remember another time

              I don't want to know you

           I'm not dressed

  I had to take the risk

     I did look

  I don't care what you make of it

        I am outside in the sun

                    I still had what was mine

              I will stay here and die

           I was reinforced in this opinion

    I flushed it down the toilet

                 I collapsed into my chair

                            I could go home still

                      I forgot the place, sir

         I close my eyes so as not to see those apes

  I said that it was all scattered

     I met him through some friends

             I saw the object itself

                I left them

                       I thought you were different

           I want not to have failed to say it

                       I began to beat the horse

      I will never find happiness

I will not repair the hole in the window

                 I wish you at least a pleasant day

       I don't say that it's me particularly

          I knew now why her face was familiar

               I play a little at it

           I've rung them three times

  I stood on my own two feet

I will see him there

       I begin to recognize where I am

                 I will tell you

     I protest my innocence of these things

           I only heard by accident

      I tell you all women are dead

I could hardly believe my own eyes

                   I could find nothing to say

   I undertook to deliver the letters and the box

            I would do the same

         I'm going back with you

                  I shall keep this spot in sight

            I can only speak for myself

                         I was impatient

               I squeaked for joy

                     I agree with that

                        I close my eyes and think it over

                                       I stick to dealing

                 I've had it a long time without selling it

                              I walked out the back way

                        I don't intend to do anything

          I ain't leaving this machine

             I liked her all right

    I should like him to have a friend

       I'm only speaking the truth

I am going around the corner

               I ask you

        I just don't want to eat, I answer 

  I didn't answer

             I m sorry, he said

     I forgot to notice what brand it was

               I see, the professor said

I tackled him this morning on belief 

   I'm afraid I am

         I came to fetch him from his room in the morning 

              I do not know about others 

     I am shivering

           I open the door

  I wouldn't have wanted to try that myself

        I got up and followed her into the study

I went out, walked a few steps to the front door

      I wonder did he ever put it out of sight

  I laughed but it was not a gay sort of laughter

              I can see the picture

I'm tired and I want to stop this mumbling

                  I won't stand for this

    I'm unpopular everywhere because they expected you

         I was a guide

               I wasn't speaking to you

                     I think you've got enough to do already


We didn’t have Google sculpting in my youth, but this piece proceeds by a kind of antecedent, just picking up books that were literally lying around, appropriating “I” statements – there’s Malraux, Mailer, Dickens, Stein & Creeley** tucked in there in various places – yet it seems to me that the work does indeed “construct a voice.” At what level is it (or is it not) mine?


Tognazzini’s piece doesn’t succeed for me quite as well as it seems to for Murray & her students. Tognazzini’s ability to articulate two positions within a relationship – more or less “I” & “her” – is well done, but that long sentence beginning “Her fingers hang…” strikes me as just too clunky in a work as short as this one. And, in general, this is a prose ear at work, more comfortable with the prosody of fiction than poetry.


But what works best for him are the open-ended, indeterminate elements. “Poppies exploding, smoke.” The risk in such language when attached to a pronoun – “Her head an eraser…Her secret self an igloo” – is that these verbal gestures can telescope down into a psychology of stereotypical tropes. Her head an eraser? Still, I don’t think this is where Tognazzini is going with this. I think it’s only incidentally about a female & much more about the construction of positions & relations. The use of figurative language represents, even if it doesn’t always achieve, an opacity that is not that unlike the opacity of others, even our most intimate others, in real life.




* Bill Henderson removed the label “fiction” from the paperback edition at my request.


** It was, in fact, something of Creeley’s – I’m tired and I want to stop this mumbling – spoken in the middle of an interview, that set this piece in motion, even though it’s one of the final lines in the work. I spent much of the writing, as I recall, trying to arrive at a point where I thought it made sense to enter that into the text.