It's Go In Horizontal: Selected Poems 1974-2006
(University of California Press)
Laying out a poem like it were a trail of breadcrumbs a reader would to the bigger feast of The Point Being Made is not how writer Leslie Scalapino writes. As we find ourselves in a time when the popular idea of the poet and their work they compose seems slanted toward the lightly likable Billy Collins and others assembling stanzas that are easily grasped, shared, written out in a fine hand on perfumed paper and preserved between the leaves of a dictionary of quotations. Difficulty or the second look, beyond the festooned surface, is not for this audience, which wants, one thinks, poetry to be a prettified version of obvious literary sounds.
Scalapino requires not the casual gaze but the harder view, the more inquisitive eye. Scalapino brings a refreshing complexity to her work, a sanguine yet inquisitive intelligence that is restless and dissatisfied with the seemingly authorized narrative styles poets are expected to frame their ideas with. The framing, so to speak, is as much the subject in her poems and prose, and the attending effort to interrogate the methods one codifies perception to the exclusion of details not fitting a convenient structure, Leslie Scalapino has produced a body of work of rare and admirable discipline; the writing is a test of the limits of generic representation. Her work as well as an inquiry on how we might exist without them.
In a series of over nineteen books over published since the seventies, she has been one of the most interesting poets working, an earnest inquisitor of consciousness and form blurring and distorting the boundaries that keep poetry, prose, fiction, and autobiography apart. It's Go in Horizontal is a cogent selection from three decades of writing.
The distinction blurring is not a project originating with her, but there is in Scalapino's work the sense of a single voice rather than expected "car radio effect", the audio equivalent of Burroughs's cut-up method that would make a piece resembles an AM dial being moved up and down a distorted, static-laden frequency. Leslie Scalapino's writing is one voice at different pitches responding to an intelligence aware of how it codes and decodes an object of perception. The work is fascinating, interrogations that wrestle with the act of witnessing.
In the best sense of the comparison, her writing has traces of Gertrude Stein at her most concentrated, when she had considered the Cubism of Braque, Picasso, and Leger and sought an equivalent in writing of the effects they achieved in their painting and sculpture; a disassembling of the usual way that orders visual experience the effect of which reveals each perspective at the same time. This simultaneity of witness presents problems at first--head scratching isn't an unusual response to first timers even these days--but the beauty of the project is that the abstraction it produces in the work of the Cubists and with sympathetic experimental writers like Stein is that it allows for things that are normally hidden or ignored in favor of more flattering, svelte detail to be brought to the forefront. The world is less smooth and elegant as the former restraints are removed, and it becomes a huge space filled with objects of infinite shape.
Stein, though, was principally intrigued with the visual, and Scalapino's writing concerns itself with an investigation of one's own perception.
There is a fracturing of narrative flow, a rephrasing of what was formally said, a studied trek through a temporal sequence of events full of incidental images, smells and sounds, any of which trigger associations linking the speaker, the witness to phenomenon, to a personal history and future one speculates about in limitless wondering. Scalapino's writing is a study of the mind conducting its habit as a device that forces order on an infinitely complex rush of details that would otherwise overwhelm the senses.
Her poetry examines the canvas on which one draws their conceptualizations, a worried presence on the margins of consolidated personality ever aware of the filters one applies over the phenomenon.
I haven't excerpted any of Scalapino's work here because the formatting of this blog wouldn't do justice to the arrangements of her lines on the page; the spatial arrangements are crucial in many of her poems for each sliver and shaving of nuance to fully work. But there are are some choice links here you can follow to some of her works online, presented, I assume, as the author intended them to appear.