I was excited to discover the Diagram site, specifically the 12.1 issue (link below), which features essays by writers and bloggers. This one by Jackie Wang really sang to me, but the title (from a quote by Samuel Beckett) grabbed my attention first.
A Stain on Silence
by Jackie Wang (as found on Diagram)
As we cannot eliminate language all at once, we should at least leave nothing undone that might contribute to its falling into disrepute. To bore one hole after another in it, until what lurks behind it – be it something or nothing – begins to seep through; I cannot imagine a higher goal for a writer today. —Samuel Beckett
Since one feels obliged to write, let it be without obscuring the space between the lines with words…. The word fishes for something that is not a word. And when that not-word takes the bait, something has been written. Once the space between the lines has been fished, the word can be thrown away with relief. —Clarice Lispector
After being split up for decades following the Chinese Civil War, a man sends a shoe to his beloved on the mainland. The shoe is supposed to say everything without saying anything. Historical circumstance sometimes demands we communicate discretely, diagonally. I have often thought of offering an object up in place of a poem. An egg or chunk of menstrual flesh. The egg: matter imbued with unpronounceable mystery.
In Luo Fu’s poem “Funeral for a Poem,” a letter is burned. The words cry out in the flame and are released into the wind, which will deliver the message to the beloved.
When I was looking out the passenger seat window while I was driving through the hills of Western Massachusetts it became blatantly clear to me that I haven’t gone far enough. I am still alive, writing. Writing always fails. If you can write it, you haven’t gone all the way into it. To die, then, is a kind of success. But death is also always failure. Did Gustave Aschenbach fail or succeed in Death in Venice? If you go far enough into the maelstrom the exit will unmake itself. I wanted to write something about the failure of language, but I couldn’t. It’s fitting that language fails me now. This essay will atone for my writerly arrogance. Words are not the servants of meaning. This is the lesson I am trying to learn this year—how to enter life through the word without submitting to the compulsion to master language.
“Every word is like an unnecessary stain on silence and nothingness.” —Samuel Beckett
I am a writer and I have committed a very serious crime. I have stained silence. And every time I drag my pen across the page I stain silence. I ask silence for forgiveness and she says, shut up. Be quiet. She was looking ill and I knew that she was almost dead and that my blathering was making it worse. Soon she would be dead. Soon there will be no silence, not even the kind that is the result of a mechanical error, when the equipment breaks down and the sound cuts out. One day I will be forced to realize the price of this stain.
What is this desire for the poet to escape language? Perhaps those who have their being in writing have a heightened sense of its weakness. In 2011 I mourned. I grieved for what language could not achieve, could not say, could never even begin to say. It is difficult to love what is impossible, to carve out a life from the inside of permanent defeat.
“The writer is like a foetus trying to do gymnastics.” —Samuel Beckett
I’m trying to work through this very difficult problem.
Is language the marble or the detritus?
“Language is a pile of dirty laundry / They are like wounded beasts unable to find permanent shelter” —Luo Fu
“Language is the frail bridge which we fling across the chasm of the inexpressible and the incommunicable.” —James A. Matisoff
An insurmountable feat.
Give your words permission to run off the page.
“To be an artist is to fail, as no other dare fail…” —Samuel Beckett
Under Japanese colonial rule in Taiwan, Chinese was barred from public life and Japanese was the compulsory language. When Japan lost Taiwan to the Guomindang during the Chinese Civil War, the inhabitants were faced with a linguistic problem that was the opposite of most colonial situations—the collapse of colonial rule and the reinstitution of Chinese as the official language meant that a generation would be linguistically alienated, only able to express themselves in a colonial language (Japanese), which was banned from public life after the accession of Chiang Kai-shek. It has been said that the translingual generation gave birth to modern poetry in Taiwan. Some say the compulsion to create emerges from the impossibility of expression. As Beckett writes, “What complicates it all is the need to make. Like a child in mud but no mud. And no child. Only need.”
Separated for decades
How could words account for the distance
I send a shoe
A shoe that contains all suffering and longing
Go to the mainland and bring her this shoe.
What does a shoe-letter mean
What does it say, and what can’t it say
“Travelers on earth / How can blood and words truly connect?” —Du Pan Fangge, “Under the Pomelo Tree”
I want these words to be like my blood. I want my words to bleed but words are just on a page or in a computer, they don’t have blood but they do have blood. They have my blood, which I spill into everything I write. It’s not a metaphor. I take a long fingernail and scratch it against my face, smear my bloody finger across the writing page. How many ways can we try to inscribe the body, to take language to the limits of the body? How do we reconnect with the gestural origins of language? Go beyond meaning and into the meat of the word. A mantra intoned. Its power is derived from its ability not to represent, but to obliterate.
Beckett: “All poetry is prayer.”
Prayer is faith.
You can only have faith in what cannot be known.
What cannot be known: the space beyond the word.
The language is the night-blanket we blast with our cannon
To release the light.
What poetry does not strive for some contact with the numinous?
“The term prophet is derived from the Greek word prophetes for the persons who narrated the cult legends at festivals. This etymology highlights the primary characteristic of this religious type: the prophet is the one who speaks the divine revelation directly to the community. This mantic art effects change in the social and political order because the prophet’s words carry the power of their divine source. Gerardus van der Leeuw expressed this by saying, ‘The word, the power-word, is equally a deed.’ A poet who experienced the inspired word was originally considered to be filled with a god.” —John A. Grim, The Shaman: Patterns of Religious Healing Among the Ojibway Indians
God fills the most loyal poets with prophecies. But this poet spins it, deliverers the word as her own.
The poet is a narcissist who is full of shit.
Never forget it.
“‘My life is true romance!’ shouted the failed writer.” —Clarice Lispector
A memory. From where do you speak? He was never waiting for me. I was always waiting for him. In the Japanese noodle restaurant he would listen to my updates. I spoke of purple souls that were leaving bodies, one after the other, on a conveyor belt. Death, Fordist style. Person and I were flying over the lake with colorful helium balloons. Shit was getting gentrified. I had to move to the other side of town and so I traveled by balloon. I was in search of a wandering tale. Too afraid to go myself so I sent my textual doppelganger. She is not me, though we share the same memories. By proxy I will know everything she knows. I as her in the misty forest trying to find my way to China. The monk. He gave me the book to read aloud, but I couldn’t read it. Every page was covered in a plastic film and the glare blinded me, prevented me from seeing the text. So I left, embarrassed, and walked down the side of a palm treed mountain until I arrived at the lake. Crossed a long wooden footpath and came to a ferry that took me to the other side of the world. In the morning fog we drifted past Mongolian yurts floating on small islands. I arrived without documents, so naturally all the buses drove past me when I stood outside in the rain. With no proof of my existence I knew it would be difficult to find my way back.
I carry nothing yet still, there is light. Through this light I have my light. Blaze into me. The birds have gathered in the place where I have died. Snakes on my grave. Not entombed by the grave, but ensouled in the snakes. I as the snakes—I am asking you, hoping you can hear beyond my unfamiliar form.
A chant. A potent sound with no semantic value.
The quietude of my underground slumber. Steve’s on the ocean right now. Moxie’s got an air balloon and will try out the sky. I wait for the seaward path to find me, pluck me, launch me beyond land. Though simple and mossy I have lived in the jackrabbit’s den as long as my owl will let me. Write with the friend in mind. You were one to set out as I sat around wanting to ride your coattails into a better life. A glass full of that night, the night when you felt a love not bound by your skin.
I will write a love poem that is without a subject
That erases the subject
Into the bubble and blast toward a love that gives space
A love that is the space
She is in search of a language that is tactile, palatial, and self-immolating—a language that will correspond to her latent desire to disintegrate and expand. To become the room.
Leaving in the morning. Leaving the country you never said goodbye. There was nothing for me to do except take the taxi to the airport at dawn. My aunt cried. My girlfriend packed our things. That wonder was lost on me. The floral displays in the round-a-bout. What if the taxi just kept driving around it in circles because I told him—I have nowhere to go. It’s almost Chinese New Years and I’m orbiting the manicured flower display. Red. I’ve given up but maybe a part of me just does it instinctively. Don’t think of people. Think of your movements with them. Live with the memory inside you, inside you living. I was being an ass and so she cried. The only thing I wanted to do on my computer was look at pictures of the Northern Lights. We put our media aside and broke down. Mourn the death of silence, who returns as ghost.
“But gale winds, blown down from the Arctic Circle, moved the stuff around, so it shifted it skirts like that many loaves of flour, to show, still, you can be moved by the unseen, if you see what is moving.” —Fanny Howe
Let silence undo you. On some days I am released. I unclench my tight fingers and assume a new posture. Who cares if they want you dead—let the spirits clamor and enter the sacred bed. Little red flowers spin on the yellow pillow case. We dance like monkeys for the drumming spiders. Behind the scenes the spiders conspire to bring all the peripatetic crones together. Go outside, they whisper. We shield our candle flames from the breeze with our hands, crouch down between the frozen berry bushes and speak to the air. There was a dream whose narrative has fallen out from beneath me. I remember…a flame. A difficult situation.
And then, the wind….