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Throughout my reading of Lisa Robertson’s The Weather, I kept returning to a few simple questions: Are there patterns at play here? If so, what do they mean? I can feel this, but (how) can I read it? Take, for example, a passage like this:


“The hills fling down shadow; we fling down shadow. The horizon is awkward; we fling down shadow. The horizon melts away; this was the dictation. The ice cracks with a din; very frustrating. The leaves are beginning; it unifies nothing. The light lies intact and folded; we open and shout. The light seems so whimsical; it’s techno-intellectual work. The light’s so romantic; we permit the survival of syntax. The little aconite peeps its yellow fingers; we manipulate texture. The moon is faintly gleaming; we expose our insufficiency. Total insignificance of lyric. They’s what we adore. The mountains have vanished; our mind becomes sharp. The mountains unfurl long shadow; ornament is no crime” (37).


Clearly, there are structures at work, here – but they are dynamic and irregular, shifting whenever one attempts to pin them down. In The Weather, it appears that Robertson constructs moods not so much through forms, but through gestures that serve as intimations of forms, creating an effect of schematization that begins to modulate almost as soon as it is perceived. This seemed at first to be appropriate to a book about weather, with all of its portent and uncertain signification.


I was struck, however, by this passage from Daston’s “Cloud Physiognomy: “As the ode to Howard suggests, the act of naming and the act of seeing fused to create well-defined forms out of the ineffable, inchoate clouds that could be anything and everything. The precondition for description, both verbal and visual, was directed attention that focused exclusively and consistently on some features at the expense of many others. Once fixed, description in turn channeled the observer’s attention” (55). This description of how systems of classification trained the eye to read cloud formations through a project of subtractive perception (a la Bergson) made me question the practice of trying to pin down Robertson’s patternings at all. Doesn’t focusing in on the grammatical and syntactical formations of The Weather lead us away from the texture of the language, from the individual phrase, from the significance of any given word?


The sense of self-reflexivity in the passage from Robertson that I quoted above suggests that the poem is aware of this; the frustration of the “din,” that the beginning of the leaves “unifies nothing.” Indeed, the poem declares its aim to be to “manipulate texture,” and instructs us that “ornament is no crime.” Perhaps the attempt to make a taxonomy of weather is “techno-intellectual work” that misses the light’s whimsy, and to try to read the clouds forces us to decline to see them.

I’m interested in reading this short text in relation to what I feel has been a silent interlocutor for this course in general: Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, particularly Swann’s Way. Most obviously, Proust’s novel deals closely with habit and repetition in temporality and memory, the vibrancy of things as both material and discursive/signifying (the madeleine, for example), and the gap between the moment of writing and the experience of which one is writing that seems to dissolve with the act of reading. In Sedgwick’s The Weather in Proust, she argues for a kind of localized mysticism of the everyday not dissimilar from our reading of Spinoza’s writing on God and nature. I think Robertson is picking up on this (she’s sure to have read both Sedgwick and Proust) when she writes of the weather as both ornamental and as “the vestibule to something fountaining newly and crucially and yet indiscernibly beyond” (60). She also writes of the days as “godlets swagging our bliss and ignorance” and weather as “boredom utopic” (60). There is an interesting combination of the quotidian and sacred that speaks both to Sedgwick’s reading of Proust and his own investment in describing what is repeated daily (family walks, waking, his mother’s goodnight kiss) but retains an agency and power that is both endlessly evasive and engrossing.

So when Robertson writes, “The weather is a stretchy, elaborate, delicate trapeze, an abstract and intact conveyance to the genuine future, which is also now. Mount its silky rope in ancient makeup and polished muscle to know the idea of tempo as real” (61), it’s not a stretch to read this passage in relation to Proust’s famous waking scene at the beginning of Swann’s Way:

[…] when I awoke in the middle of the night, not knowing where I was, I could not even be sure at first who I was […] but then the memory—not yet of the place in which I was, but of various other places where I had lived and might now very possibly be—would come like a rope let down from heaven to draw me up out of the abyss of not-being, from which I could never have escaped myself […] (Modern Library 2003, 4-5).

There is a lot to dissect in these passages—the spatialization of lifting oneself up into the present moment in contrast to the aerial performance of the trapeze as that which swings in different directions, for example—but most generally, it’s interesting that Robertson replaces memory with the weather. For Proust, the body has its own physical memory that repeatedly situates itself in relation to a space. This is how his narrator can “piece together the original components of my ego” (5). But this assumes a state of being as non-being, preceding the ego, that is comprised of the act of assembling or gathering what is disparate, shifting, and unknown, unto something solid, presentable, and cognizable. By not knowing where he is, Proust’s narrator cannot know who (or even what or that) he is. Robertson suggests that rather than thinking of memory as that which collects and solidifies, we can rethink it as that which allows for expansion, constant motion, and limited or ambiguous taxonomies of the self. If memory is what makes Proust’s narrator human every morning, what kind of being is constructed by lifting oneself up by the weather?


In the aesthetic theory proposed by The World as Will and Representation, Arthur Schopenhauer describes architecture as a great drama of gravity: “The position, size, and form of every part must have so necessary a relation to this stability of form that if it were possible to remove some part, the whole would inevitably collapse” (Schopenhauer 215). Architectural forms are thereby expressive of the Ideas of “gravity, cohesion, rigidity, hardness, those universal qualities of stone” (214). As such—and as representative of the larger thrust of the Western aesthetic tradition—Schopenhauer proposes a kind of “hard architecture”: an emphasis on the essential, depth characteristics of materials and their contribution to a durable, structure. This is precisely the metaphysics of form against which Lisa Robertson reacts in proposing “Soft Architecture” as “the metaphysics of surface”: “performing a horizontal research which greets shreds of fibre, pigment flakes, the bleaching of light, proofs of link, ink, spore, liquid and pixilation, the strange, frail, leaky cloths and sketchings and gestures which we are” (Robertson 21). As the enactment and subsequent thwarting of gravity’s force, Schopenhauer’s hard architecture is a contrarily vertical research, which “greets” only masses of stone and eschews surface effects.

Except, that Schopenhauer’s architectural theory is an oppositional one: the Ideas of rigidity and cohesion made legible to perception by architecture are expressed only in relation to those Ideas of “fluidity, light” (Schopenhauer 214). The full extent of a hard architecture is cognizable only in relation to the soft accents, which illuminate—literally and in contrast—its substance. Particularly, Schopenhauer sets up an oppositional analogy between his architecture of solidity and fluid hydraulics: “What architecture achieves for the idea of gravity where this appears associated with rigidity, is the same as what this other art achieves for the same Idea where this idea is associated with fluidity, in other words, with formlessness, maximum mobility, and transparency” (217).

This is literalized, of course, in Robertson’s “The Fountain Transcript,” which recognizes “the emblematic potentials of moving liquid and light” (Robertson 50). It is only through its dialogue with formlessness that form comes to emerge. The transparent occlusion of stone by water is what brings stone into existence as gravity, rigidity, hardness: “Flow in itself, with its fatal grandeur, does not interest us; we prefer to describe obstacle to flow, little impediments, affect-mechanisms, miniaturizations of sublimity” (55). The interaction of fluid and solid stages a series of dramas of form—those miniaturization of sublimity, in the conflict and overcoming of impediments—that bring substance to the surface. Something about Hadley+Maxwell’s “Fountain Portraits” seems, for this reason, simultaneously theatrical and expected, continuous with the skyline even as it attempts to defy it.

“Formlessness, maximum mobility, and transparency” are the literal conditions of fluid architecture, of course, definitive of the kinds of fountains Hadley+Maxwell imagine. However, motion, formlessness, and transparency are also the predominant conditions of contemporary architecture, structures that in many ways instantiate Robertson’s doctrine of Soft Architecture. I am thinking, particularly, of architectural “transparency” as defined by Rowe and Slutzky in their seminal article “Transparency: Literal and Phenomenal.” There is, of course, the eponymously literal transparency as “an inherent quality of substance—as in a wire mesh or glass curtain wall” (Rowe and Slutzky 161). This is the “intelligence, that’s tall and silver” of the homes of Mies van der Rohe, Charles Eames, and Frank Lloyd Wright (Robertson 68). But there is also phenomenal “transparency”: “a simultaneous perception of different spatial locations,” in which “space not only recedes but fluctuates in a continuous activity” (Kepes qtd in Rowe and Slutzky 161).

In architecture, phenomenal transparency is accorded to a series of surfaces, of “stratifications, devices by which space becomes constructed, substantial, and articulate” (175). Substance thus emerges, not through Schopenhauer’s essential drama, but at the level of the translucent and immaterial surface. Things do not happen at the depths of some drama of cohesion: “To experience change, we submit ourselves to the affective potential of the surface” (Robertson 123). I am interested, then, in the rhetorical structure of the surface, in the way that the surface communicates softly and makes use of its transparency. Soft architecture abolishes metaphor. Metaphor is, of course, the organizing logic of Schopenhauer’s architectural expression of ideas, and soft architecture has only one imperative: “Change its name repeatedly” (41).

This returns us, as we reach the end of the course, to one of our first concerns: the structure of description, not as verticality, but as a besideness (of the sort theorized by Sedgwick). Besideness, too, seems the organizing logic of Robertson’s soft architecture. “Description,” she writes, “is mystical” (20). It effects transparent changes, changes at the surface. Again: “Description decorates”; it is ornamentation, which was always extraneous to Schopenhauer’s schema (60). How can we imagine a poetics of the surface, which is “anti-metaphoric,” “disperses convention”? (41). Might we realize this as instantiated in an actual architectural of surfaces, or must Robertson’s structures always remain as “mystical” as the “Fountain Portraits”?


Lisa Robertson’s thoughts on the architectural “ornament” reminded me of a text that I am writing about for another class, Frankfurt School theorist Siegfried Kracauer’s “The Mass Ornament,” written in 1927. Robertson’s claim that “ornament is the frontier of the surface” finds support in Kracauer’s essay, which does not address architecture specifically but borrows its terminology to describe the ornamental “surfaces” of “mass culture” in general. Kracauer argues that the illusion of the “mass” results from an abstractive rationality—which he calls “Ratio”—inherent in capitalism. The mass obscures the particularity of the individuals within it. Despite his belief that the mass is mere “surface” or “ornament” however, he believes that it provides direct access to the historical significance of a given epoch:

“The position that an epoch occupies in the historical process can be determined more strikingly from an analysis of its inconspicuous surface-level expressions than from that epoch’s judgments about itself. … The surface-level expressions, however, by virtue of their unconscious nature, provide unmediated access to the fundamental substance of the state of things … The fundamental substance of an epoch and its unheeded impulses illuminate each other reciprocally” (Kracauer, The Mass Ornament, 75).

For Robertson, this reciprocal illumination between the “impulses” visible on the surface and the “fundamental substance” takes place not only in the constructed buildings of human architecture but also the “softer” forms of nonhuman nature. To understand history and contingency, she believes, one must move away from “essence” or “structure” and attend to the superficial variations which document the particularity of a moment:

“We believe that structure or fundament itself, in its inert eternity, has already been adequately documented—the same skeleton repeating itself continuously. We are grateful for these memorial documents. But the chaos of surfaces compels us towards new states of happiness” (128).

Importantly, Kracauer also does not restrict his discussion of surface to human forms. Indeed, the “mass ornament” is the site where “bare nature” manifests itself, “the very nature that also resists the expression and apprehension of its own meaning” (Mass Ornament 84). Robertson similarly compels us to consider the “superficies…formed from contingent gesture” throughout the natural world as resistant to the human’s search for essential meaning. Rather than provoking confusion and disorientation, however, these volatile surfaces afford us “new states of happiness”; there is a unique joy in the inability to know and to classify the surface, because it supports the survival of curiosity and the human drive to continue interacting with the world. Moreover, ornament serves as “the decoration of mortality”; the cycles of decay followed by renewal throughout the organic world do not merit fear but fascination, because they offer dialectical counterpoints to the “inertness” of eternity (128).

Given Kracauer’s interest in the “mass” of human culture, I wonder if placing him in conversation with Robertson could offer new ways of understanding her architectural intervention into the division between natural forms and so-called artificial ones. Kracauer’s project of turning the intangible “mass” into an immanent, concrete surface seems compatible with Robertson’s goal of dislocating the “structural essence” of an object from its interior to its exterior. To what extent could we think of the taxonomic classifications based on appearance which take place in the sciences—such as the long efforts to interpret “cloud physiognomy” that Daston discusses—as abstractive assimilations of chaotic variation into the single “mass” that we represent as “nature”?

Although critical of the mass, Kracauer suggests that societal change must “go through” the ornament rather than avoiding it. Robertson’s theorized “Office of Soft Architecture”—a sort of satirical nod to the bureaucratic, institutional linkages between nature and culture—seems like the sort of codifying apparatus which could galvanize the nonhuman mass into action.


wink with both eyes

or: on feeding pigeons

The Crow Observer differs modestly from the Crow Friend in that the former is less personally involved in interspecific communication with crows than is the latter. Our Crow Observers respected the autonomy of crows and specifically did not want to foster friendships in which one actor was a subordinate, a family member or dependent, a pet, or a kind of property.

(John M. Marzluff and Marc L. Miller, “Crows and Crow Feeders: Observations on Interspecific Semiotics”)

The position of the boundary may be evident for the concept in question, but this need not be so. It could even be completely arbitrary, as when introducing a reference on a size scale allows one to examine the relational concepts of larger than and smaller than. Moreover, the position of the boundary need not even be known in advance. Once could start an experiment without knowing where the boundary is, hoping to find a consistency between subjects […]

(Jos Monen, Eli Brenner, and Jenny Reynaerts, “What Does a Pigeon See in a Picasso?”)

This is the hour of the mystery of the barn swallows.

one Where do they go in daytime?

two Do they never rest?

three When you buy them in the store, made in China, on the end of strings, they do exactly what they do alive.

four How is that possible?

The idea of the changing center is not in anything we make.

Our toys run down.

(Robert Ashley, Perfect Lives, “7. The Backyard”)

and our research runs down… guided by Deleuze+Guattari, Donna Haraway, Vincent Despret, Monen+Brenner+Raeynerts, Marzluff+Miller (), and Robert Ashley, I am attempting to make myself anomalous term, available companion, talented body, arbitrary boundary position, feeder, changing center. a changing center among the theorists, I hope, as much as among the pigeons (Columba livia). I am feeding pigeons, on the move.

I mean to work in the spirit of Deleuze+Guattari’s anomalous term, especially in my very departures from those authors, and in turn, from all the other theorists treated. some consideration of James Wale’s Bride of Frankenstein, and Hayao Miyazaki’s Kiki’s Delivery Service, will help me in and out of the orbits offered by those two, by Haraway against them, by Marzluff+Miller. in these two films are feeders and poisoners, sorcerers and familiars, Oedipal animals and Umwelt, Friends and Observers aplenty. there are sinister becomings1 (and the work of Deleuze+Guattari furnishes its own escape velocity), and hopeful alliances.

it is relatively easy to pet name a pigeon (viz. to make an Oedipal pigeon); this is not the way I’m taking. in Sandusky, Ohio, at Sheldon’s Marsh Nature Preserve (Lake Erie Birding Trail site 47), there are several devote feeders of fox squirrels (Sciurus niger). I witnessed one feeder pass a peanut into the hands of a squirrel, speak to the squirrel fondly. this is a sort of availability, a relationship worth considering. now, the fox squirrels will allow a person to take their close-up2, if that person suggests that they might have some food. with Ashley, I am against the close-up. I took some close-ups of these squirrels. the squirrels could read something in me, at a certain point, around the instant of capture. there are biosemiotics of deception, of disingenuous initiation of feeding.

I am convinced that pigeons, who have spent considerable time around humans, have a very well developed sense of human biosemiotics, that there is a channel of interspecies communication that pigeons are well attuned to, but us not so much. I’ll elaborate this, and I’ll learn more about it.

I will feed pigeons whenever I run into them. I have a pair of novelty reptile sunglasses, holographic lenses. when these are visibly displayed on me, it’s feeding time. I have a bag of relatively nutritious feed mix (lentils, brown rice, chia seeds). when I put the reptile sunglasses away, with some flourish, this is the sign that feeding time is over, and I’m on my way. in January of 2016, in Ukrainian Village, I fed for a few weeks some cats. three cats. a band with a changing anomalous, and all that. I did not have a sign for termination, or deescalation, of the encounter, they would wait at the door. so I am trying out an aposematic gesture.

so, the output is journal and theorizing, towards a mobile pigeon feeding.

1Badiou has posed: “The Fascism of the Potato”… I’d not always recuperate the werewolf; there is no hope for Hermann Löns.

2Robert Ashley, Perfect Lives, “2. The Supermarket”

He used to, uh, shoot close-ups, now he eschews them.

He eschews close-ups for political reasons

one Only the wide shot will accommodate the picture of the masses.

two The close-up is aggressive and looks for victims.

three The close-up precludes theorizing.

four Finance and perspective, without doubt, and one way to solve the problem of where the lines converge, is to zoom in, as they say.

The close-up is the equivalent of the credit check.

The first thing to go in a money crisis is optics.

He eschews close-ups for political reasons.


For my final assignment I had planned on writing—and wrote the first three pages of—an essay chronicling the history of “quotation” in English language poetry; I wanted to argue for a kind of formal greebling in Marianne Moore’s “An Octopus” that changed the way subsequent poets felt permitted to texture their work. By comparing the relationship between Moore’s quoted language and her source material with the way other poets engage with source material, I hoped to kind of loosely (softly!) taxonomize the conditions of possibility for quotation in postwar American poetics.

Unfortunately, or else fortunately, those initial pages gestured toward an essay that was perhaps unnecessarily “galactic” in its consequences, and I felt like the reasonable response was to brainstorm a way of tackling materiality that was somehow more narrow and more local.

In my own recent poetic work, my so-called subject matter has been resolutely humanistic—short and I hope “emotional” lyrics that manifest variously as “psychic drama” or “generic human drama.” For a while, I have been seeking a break in the manuscript—to occur, I imagine, around three-quarters through—that would respond to the minimalism of those lyrics with an accelerated, prolix language, tonally offset from the first three quarters, and taking the “complex material world” as aesthetic focal point. The work I have produced in this new vein has so far been exploratory—writing in many directions with the intention of fastening upon a mode that provides sufficient aesthetic contrast to minimalism. This process of working-through has produced poetic writing that, to my mind, engages with the questions and concerns of so-called New Materialism far more productively than the previous essay could have. What’s more, that writing manifests as having already been influenced by the reading traditions we have been moving through in this class.

For these reasons, I intend to keep writing in “poetic” directions. The end result will be, I imagine, at least 20 pages of critically-engaged poetic work that formally dramatize “the lyric speaker’s engagement with material and ontological textures.” The poetic antecedents for this work strike me as being—reductively—Louis Zukofsky, Barbara Guest, Martin Corless-Smith, Lisa Robertson, “Charles Olson,” John Wieners, Vi Khi Nao, Alex Walton, Jodi Johnson, William Carlos Williams, Robert Browning, Sir Thomas Browne, Marianne Moore, John Ashbery, Keston Sutherland, and maybe J.H. Prynne.

If necessary, I will append pages of critical prose language to the project to justify it inside the academic arena. I hope it is not logistically egregious of me to have decided to proceed in this way.



Foregrounding the paper is a site analysis of 41.471963, -71.306755, which, plus approx. r=71’, describes the location of Sod Maze, an earthwork constructed in 1974 by the artist-and-RISD-alum Richard Fleischner on the grounds of a preserved mansion in Newport, Rhode Island.

Made of mounded earth, and “covered in the same grass as the lawn of the mansion” (source), Sod Maze utilizes the traditional unicursal templating of the Classical labyrinth. Though connection to the historical turf maze is most direct, I prefer to position the work as an oblique solute or melted product of the topiary, or hedge maze, given the proximity of another on-the-grounds-of-a-preserved-mansion feature, the Green Animals Topiary Garden (41.603775,-71.27583).

A broader relational standard is established through a broader landscape-exploration of Newport. A feature particular to the city is a high mass of grey-green (standardized non-color becoming one-color) spaces in the surrounding topographic organization. Newport is swaddled in courses (golf, college), concourses, and courts– products of multi-level bureaucratic strategies to beautify and fictionalize. The available-green of a tennis-blank lies just beyond the green-lighting of a Stop & Shop traffic turn-about.

I select and enhance a planned/organizational (governmental) understanding of space in order to cross-examine Robert Smithson’s vague nightmare – the duplicitous and phantom Establishment, able to absolutely level difference and confine “creative genius”. In the referenced essay (“The Establishment”, 1968), Smithson describes “maze-like” formations of waste and falsity that continually trend towards a darkening consumption. Smithson’s cold wordwork, however, is ultimately concerned with its own demise. His terminal morbidity is focused on assured entropy and the laying-waste of material– “all solids tremble and seem about to disintegrate”. His fear circles about that which directly effects the perpetuity and monumentality of Smithson’s own, highly material, work. Supreme material anxiety, here, has a direct relation to a personalized egoistic dread.

I hope to provide an alternative construction of maze-meaning through the employ of the form in service of a feminist temporal expansion. Sod Maze, though made with monumental purpose, of a specific material, and directly remarking on a teleological inevitability, actuates, for me, not a dead ending or an absurd, absolutist sand-pit but a textured, experiential elongation of time and, furthermore, an opportunity for non-spatial construction-work.

My longer analytic arc investigates walking, siphoning, and winding procedures as gateways to Grosz’s immersive temporalities and alternative methods for experiencing planned space. The quasi-computational activity of path-following affirms and composes materiality, texturally grounding experience and drawing a tactile connection that softens the monumental and constitutes a body of ontogenic marking. This reading gestures towards a feminist cybernetics – the habit of formation and the formulation of material complete an act of becoming in holding hands (following adequate romance-processing-time).

In order to garner a bit more material, and also in service of formally mirroring the sedimentary deposit of repeated experience, I will apply dead-pan formal analysis to a number of maze-constructions. Ephemera like the paper shape-mazes and computer text-adventure games popular in the 70s, along with home-grown drawing experiments, allow a greater degree of mechanical observation and formal experimentation. The nondeterministic glossary produced will allow for side-ways entrance into the earthwork in particular, and will generally open the paper to winding of its own.

In content, the paper proposes to follow chaotic time through a unicausal pathway, allowing iconic monumentality to bleed into the nondirective and reapplying Smithson’s techniques of Noticing and Deadpanning as temporal nonfixities that sublimate his onerous doom. A personal love of the proposed site lends, however, a descriptive bias.

Sod Maze is situated on borderline-private property, and is well-experienced when trespassed upon. Site visits and documentary evidence will inform the work that I hope fitfully trespasses on constructive ground as it aims towards its own kind of appreciation.


In Part II of Hello, the Roses Mei-mei Berssenbrugge interrogates and elaborates vision as a creative modality. I draw out her embedded framework through exhaustive close-readings of “Glitter,” “Slow Down, Now,” “Verdant Heart,” and “Hello, the Roses.”

“Glitter” documents dissolution of the subject-object dichotomy occurring during a mutual regard between the poet and a flower that both opens and closes the poem. Vision initiates a communicative channel between entities, allowing for the possibility of a form of thinking that is not limited to sentient beings. Thoughts may arrive nonverbally, but they do not resist transfiguration into verbal form (as the poem).

In “Slow Down, Now,” Berssenbrugge engages the animating spirit of “Glitter” while introducing more specific language that condenses into a paradigm including the key terms perception, image, and meaning.

“Verdant Heart” continues the sequence and begins with an evocation of synthesis and synchronization. Perception, with its layers of accrued complexity, offers access to the constitutive elements of the universe: “What you call matter, flowers, represents tones held together in a harmonic spectrum we can sense.” As in “Glitter” when the seen and seeing violet “loses objectivity,” this poem pursues the implications of just such an encounter between human and flower: “Communication flows back and forth between the rose and myself, and I begin perceiving through the plant.”

The final poem in the section, for which the book is named, also revolves around the visual modality. Though these poems occur in a sequence, they resist being interpreted as a progression of Berssenbrugge’s understanding of perception. No statement is definitive, and each use of a recurring term deepens the weaving of its meaning. The stakes are high for the poet, and sometimes clarity feels within reach as when Berssenbrugge writes: “I’m saying physical perception is the data of my embodiment, whereas for the rose, scarlet itself is matter.”

Much of what Berssenbrugge suggests in these poems resonates with the extended study in perception Etel Adnan documents in Journey to Mount Tamalpais. Adnan renders her vision into both text and image, painting the mountain hundreds of times and describing that visual translation. She cites Ann O’Hanlon’s definition: “To perceive is to be both objective and subjective. It is to be in the process of becoming one with whatever it is, while also becoming separated from it.” What is most useful here is not the gesture toward or even beyond a sort of intersubjectivity, it is the way she locates perception “in the process.” Adnan insists on the kinetic nature of seeing, revealed to her by her own meditative painting practice. She writes, “To perceive is to be the movement, not the object,” and, “There is no rest in any kind of perception. The fluidity of the mind is of the same family as the fluidity of being.” This fluidity of being recalls Berssenbrugge’s account of “perceiving through the plant” (among other moments). Adnan calls it, “an exchange of energies,” a notion that permeates Hello, the Roses.

The exchange of energies does not restrict itself to the perceptual loop Adnan and Berssenbrugge work within. We too, as readers, perceive through the poem. Maurice Merleau-Ponty says, “an artist must not only create and express an idea, but must also awaken the experiences which will make the idea take root in the consciousness of others. If a work is successful, it has the strange power of being self-teaching.” It is this capacity of perception in its molten form that I wish to reach toward in Berssenbrugge with Adnan’s help.


-=- Austin

I’d like to extract Branka Arsic’s theories on Thoreau from their Romantic context and consider some of her claims in the broader context they deserve; specifically, I’m interested in the way that Thoreau’s work is illuminated, for Arsic, by the particularities of grief in Greek tragedy and, worlds and centuries away, at the then-cutting-edge theories on vitalism, matter, and the organic/inorganic coming out of Harvard in the 1840s. For Thoreau, Greek myth and Cambridge science both offered possibilities for “life’s capacity for transmutation and literal continuity” () – and this flux between inanimate and animate objects in the natural world provided new ways of thinking about death.

What I am interested in, however, is not as much Thoreau’s radical epistemological revision of Western subjectivity, where the mind opens and empties itself in order to form a communion of sorts with the world in its “suchness.” Rather, I am interested in the earlier claims of Bird Relics, one set aside in the greater thrust of the narrative: specifically, how what I read as a neutralized subjectivity is related not just to the metaphysical qualities of life and death but additionally to the ethical position an individual takes as a result of this alteration. For Thoreau, eschewing individualist personal identity in favor of an impersonal view of all matter leads to the possibility of collective, communal grief; less clear, however, are the ways in which vitalism and the deprioritization of the human might lead to perpetual mourning, the alaston penthos that interests Thoreau in the work of Euripides and others.

I’m interested in the space between perpetual mourning and collective mourning exactly because I think this opens up room for a broader analysis of vitalism and mourning, one which passes beyond or diverges from Thoreau’s particular epistemologies and looks at other authors in modern and contemporary poetics. I remain interested in an ethics of loss which is “closer to an ontological operation of restoration of the loss than the modern psychological commitment to protecting the interest of the mourner” (Arsic 20) but, outside of Thoreau, I wonder whether this project is achieved elsewhere in the contemporary elegiac tradition. If so, perhaps – I hope to determine – the tactic involved is not necessarily Thoreau’s “radical weakening of the self” (22) but, rather, the presentation of landscape as an alternate subjectivity.

That is to say, I am interested in the landscape as a plane which has its own meaning and ontology, and which operates in balance with the human/individual concerns of the lyric subject. This is a difficult balance: different from the allegorized and subjugated nature of, for example, the traditional pastoral elegy, but without necessarily consuming or relativizing the self.

As the previous paragraph made obvious, I’d like to link these thoughts on alaston penthos, subjectivity, and the vital nonhuman world to more genre-spanning studies on the poetic elegy: this is a subject I have a longstanding academic interest in, and one which generally agrees that modern/contemporary poetics have, in changing the relationship of humans and nature, also changed the relations of humanity to grief.

This is part of a broader problem about the natural world and its poetic representation, but for my purposes it’s best summarized in what Neal Alexander and David Cooper, in their anthology Poetry and Geography, call “a key tension in the post-war period between emplacement and displacement,” where “at one end of the spectrum place is regarded as stable, permanent, and intimately familiar, whereas at the other it is characterized as unsettled, in process, and radically open to change.” What seems to be missing in the semantic web of elegaic criticism I’m familiar with (Peter Sacks, Jahan Ramazani, Susan Gilbert, and more location/author-specific critics as well) is exactly this triangulation between grief, modernity, and landscape; ambivalent/resistant grief and compromised/anthropocenic nature are both widely understood as separate concerns of (post)modernity but without a strong sense of the exact metaphysical effects these concepts have on each other.

At the moment, I’m searching for texts which seem to maintain this particularly modern rapprochement between the lyric I and the landscape it is placed in. My sense, too, is that this will be found in the sequence, the long poem, or the book/collection rather than in the individual lyric, precisely because a balance between settlement and unsettlement is best played out on a large field; perhaps Mei-Mei Brussenbruge’s Hello, the Roses might achieve this weird tension, but I find myself drawn so far, instead, to lyric poetry outside the bounds of our class: Louise Gluck’s Averno in particular, but also Seamus Heaney’s “Glanmore Sonnets,” and so on. (Obviously, this theoretical jump needs development, but my felt sense is that this might connect to the scale of landscape, the sense of an infinite scale which provokes a sense not of the sublime or of the unimportance of the self but of an alternative timeline, working outside and alongside the human scale of grief.)

This paper explores a dialogue between experimental descriptive poetics and a gendered aestheticization of language as that which resists knowledge. Ferdinand de Saussure famously distinguished the sign as that which “always eludes the individual or social will,” an arbitrary signifier which gestures toward what is absent (or other) through a system of differences (Course in General Linguistics 962). Thus Saussure, and the linguistic turn in critical and literary theory that followed, in this sense repeats the Kantian noumenon-phenomenon distinction, by which the ‘thing-in-itself’ is ineffable. I draw on the distinction Martin Heidegger makes between his thinging of the thing and the Kantian in-itself, and compare it to Jane Bennett’s ‘thing-power’ and to new materialism more generally. I take as my premise, following feminist writers Sherry Ortner and Barbara Johnson, that the form-matter distinction has always been a gendered one, from Aristotle through Kant and others who maintain what Branka Arsić calls an “idealistic vitalism” (Bird Relics 122). Lyn Hejinian productively traces this gendered binary in a range of European Colonial texts in her reading of the Faust tale, arguing that the female body is metaphorized as both the American continent itself and as the silent, withholding repository of knowledge. Woman is othered by virtue of this recession into both the natural world and the unknowable: that which is just beyond our grasp and yet also susceptible to colonization. Susan Gubar’s landmark feminist essay, “‘The Blank Page’ and the Issues of Female Creativity,” extends this muteness and recession to the act of writing itself, by which feminine matter is the necessary background to creative figuration.


I argue that, whereas Heidegger’s use of etymology and his understanding of language as “the house of the truth of Being” present linguistic origins as a cognitive telos, Lisa Robertson’s use of repetition in The Weather and Hejinian’s emphasis on metonymy in My Life and My Life in the Nineties resist the logic of penetration and difference, by using description and parataxis to shift the focus of inquiry onto textured surfaces of things, emphasizing touch and contact through materialist epistemologies. I explore the ways in which Hejinian and Robertson, clearly influenced by Gertrude Stein, employ repetition as a kind of textured patterning that resuscitates and relishes both sincere facticity and the porousness of thought and memory. This patterned poetics of repetition structurally alters the understanding of poetry as a container that has survived through the lyric tradition (Donne’s “well-wrought urn” to Stevens’ “jar in Tennessee”) and the linguistic turn, in which the arbitrary signifier ‘contains’ meaning by gesturing towards what is absent or unseen. Not coincidentally, Heidegger uses the example of a jug in his essay “The Thing,” defining its essence or ‘thingness’ not “at all in the material of which it consists, but in the void that holds” (167). Robertson resists this form-matter (and, by extension, mind-body) distinction by using repetition of a particular word or word cluster to build a kind of netting or fabric that forms a porous basin, a container that fails to properly contain, delimit or localize, in which “every surface [is] discontinuous” (2). And Hejinian similarly disrupts narrative on the level of the paragraph, creating gaps between sentences that only partially flow into one another, with certain repeated sentences of clauses threading through the work. By playing with similarity, repetition, and rhythm, they both create a language of habit, a textural surface of things that resist abstraction and the gendered fetishization of the ineffable.