Marjorie Perloff on Silliman's "Albany"


"Albany" is a long prose paragraph made up of one hundred "New Sentences," to use Ron Silliman's own term, defined in a now well-known (and hotly debated) essay by that name. The "new sentence" is conceived as an independent unit, neither causally nor temporally related to the sentences that precede and follow it. Like a line in poetry, its length is operative, and its meaning depends on the larger paragraph as organizing system. Here, for example, are the first twenty sentences of "Albany":

If the function of writing is to "express the world." My father withheld child support, forcing my mother to live with her parents, my brother and I to be raised together in a small room. Grandfather called them niggers. I can't afford an automobile. Far across the calm bay stood a complex of long yellow buildings, a prison. A line is the distance between. They circled the seafood restaurant, singing "We shall not be moved." My turn to cook. It was hard to adjust my sleeping to those hours when the sun was up. The event was nothing like their report of it. How concerned was I over her failure to have orgasms? Mondale's speech was drowned by jeers. Ye wretched. She introduces herself as a rape survivor. Yet his best friend was Hispanic. I decided not to escape to Canada. Revenue enhancement. Competition and spectacle, kinds of drugs. If it demonstrates form some people won't read it. Television unifies conversation. And here the last twenty: Client populations (cross the tundra). Off the books. The whole neighborhood is empty in the daytime. Children form lines at the end of each recess. Eminent domain. Rotating chair. The history of Poland is 90 seconds. Flaming pintos. There is no such place as the economy, the self. That bird demonstrates the sky. Our home, we were told, had been broken, but who were these people we lived with? Clubbed in the stomach, she miscarried. There were bayonets on campus, cows in India, people shoplifting books. I just want to make it to lunch time. Uncritical of nationalist movements in the Third World. Letting the dishes sit for a week. Macho culture of convicts. With a shotgun and "in defense" the officer shot him in the face. Here, for a moment, we are joined. The want-ads lie strewn on the table.
As in his long poems Ketjak and Tjanting, both written a few years earlier, "Albany" relies on parataxis, dislocation, and ellipsis (the very first sentence, for example, is a conditional clause, whose result clause is missing), as well as pun, paragram, and sound play to construct its larger paragraph unit. But it is not just a matter of missing pieces. The poet also avoids conventional
The poet also avoids conventional "expressivity" by refusing to present us with a consistent "I," not specifying, for that matter, who the subject of a given sentence might be.
"expressivity" by refusing to present us with a consistent "I," not specifying, for that matter, who the subject of a given sentence might be. Who, for example, says "I just want to make it to lunchtime"? Or "Talking so much is oppressive"? Who believes that "Music is essential," and, by the way, essential to what? Whose "carelessness has led to abortion"? Whose "best friend was Hispanic"? And so on.

At the same time--and this has always been a Silliman trademark--indeterminacy of agent and referent does not preclude an obsessive attention to particular "realistic" detail. Despite repeated time and space shifts, the world of Albany, CA. is wholly recognizable. It is, to begin with, not the Bay Area of the affluent-- the Marin County suburbanites, Russian Hill aesthetes, or Berkeley middle-class go-getters. The working-class motif is immediately established with the reference to "My father withheld child support, forcing my mother to live with her parents, my brother and I to be raised together in a small room." And this is the white working class: "Grandfather called them niggers." Later, when the narrator is living in a part of San Francisco where, on the contrary, many ethnicities are represented, we read that "They speak in Farsi at the corner store." The poet is a political activist: he participates in demonstrations and teach-ins, is briefly jailed, avoids the draft, and so on. There are many explanations of everyday things the activist must deal with: "The cops wear shields that serve as masks." But the paragraph is also filled with references to sexual love: couplings and uncouplings, rape, miscarriage, and abortion. And finally, there is the motif of poetry: "If it demonstrates form they can't read it." And readings: "It's not easy if your audience doesn't identify as readers." Writing poetry is always a subtext but one makes one's living elsewhere: "The want-ads," as the last sentence reminds us, "lie strewn on the table."

"Silliman's work," observes Jed Rasula, "may be read as a grand refusal of the chronic strategies of authorial domination." Here Rasula echoes Silliman's own early Language manifestos, with their emphasis on the avoidance of what Charles Olson called the "lyrical interference of the individual as ego," the refusal to create a consistent or controlling "self," whose construction of events as of verbal forms controls the material in question. The "realism" of "Albany," Rasula would no doubt argue, is properly understood, not as personal expression, but as elaborate network of signifiers in which conflicting vocalizations and linguistic registers come into play.

But must it be either/or? And is it really the case that Silliman eschews "authorial domination"? I find myself increasingly uncomfortable with such formulations. For who, after all, controls the specific language operations in the text before us? There is, to begin with, not the slightest doubt that Albany is a man's poem: a man, aware of the sexual needs and difficulties of the women in his life, but centrally caught up in the political: the need for demonstrations, the abuses of the cops, the "bayonets on campus," the question of "nationalist movements in the Third World." "How concerned was I," we read in sentence 11, "over her failure to have orgasms." Evidently not overly concerned, since the very next sentence reads "Mondale's speech was drowned by jeers." Even such seemingly neutral statements as "My turn to cook" give Albany away as a man's poem: woman's "turn to cook," let's remember, is not an item of interest for most women since it's always our turn to cook.

The signature of Albany is a "normal" declarative sentence ("I can't afford an automobile"), or part of a sentence (""To own a basement," "Died in action"), sometimes commonsensical, sometimes aphoristic, sometimes an item in a newspaper or on television. In their curious collisions, these "casual" sentences point to an author who is matter-of-fact, street-wise, and largely self-educated; his is the discourse of a working-class man (as even the first name Ron rather than Ronald suggests) who has slowly and painfully learned the craft of poetry, a man who's been around and has had to put up with quite a bit, beginning with his father's withholding of child support. Pain, violence and injustice are the facts of his life: sentence after sentence refers to murders, shoot-outs, abortions, riots, asbestos poisoning and the like. And even at the trivial level, difficulty dominates: "It was hard to adjust my sleeping to those hours when the sun was up." "Becoming to live with less space." "I used my grant to fix my teeth." And so on. Yet Silliman's characteristic formulations are by no means gloomy: on the contrary, his "voice" emerges as sprightly, engaged, curious, fun-loving, energetic, a voice that loves the word-play of "They call their clubs batons. They call their committees clubs." Or "Eminent domain. Rotating chair." Or "There were bayonets on campus, cows in India, people shoplifting books. I just wanted to make it to lunch time."