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Grenier's 'Scrawl'


Robert Grenier's most recent writing may well be the last word on what's new in American poetry today. It may also be all but impossible to read, since Grenier's latest works are written by hand -- his hand's own illegible (but often exactly 'drawn') 'scrawl' -- in four colors, Faber-Castell "uni-ball" black, blue, green and red -- therefore impossibly expensive to print, therefore all but unavailable to anyone who would read them. (The impossibility, or I should say difficulty, of reading Grenier's works is unavoidable, though not 'planned' as such, as well as inevitable, since from Sentences [1978] to Phantom Anthems [1986] to the present his writing has explored how the physical 'dimension' of words on a page might bring them closer to the volume/mass of other 'non-verbal' things, and how the form of the typewritten poem as a machine-made product might be broken.) Grenier's book/box r h y m m s exists in a single copy, 90 (8 1/2 x 11") pages of 4-color hand-written poems xeroxed from Grenier's notebooks of the last several years. Without a binding other than the box, the pages may be arranged in whatever order one wants -- provided that is one can find the book, which isn't in fact likely. With color Xerox running $1.79 per page and the covers (box) at $5.00 apiece, the cost of producing a single copy of this book comes to $161.10; given current practices for publishers' markup, the retail cost of such a book might come to four times that, or approximately $650, expensive indeed for even a 'rare book' of poems. Even if r h y m m s were produced in quantity, the cost of color Xerox at today's prices would go down to no less than $.50 per page, making the cost of the 90 page book about $50. In order to get that reduction in cost for Xerox, the print run would have to be at least 40,000 copies, which would bring the cost of production 400 books to approximately $22,000 -- well beyond the means of any small press likely to be interested in such writing as Grenier's. (As an alternative method of getting his text out to the public [eye], Grenier has enlisted photographer Ken Botto to take slides of his work; Botto has taken some 500 slides so far, and there have been some twelve viewings/showings/readings of those images to date, e.g. New Langton Arts in San Francisco on November 6, 1995 and New College in San Francisco on February 26 1998. Grenier's poems can also now be found on-line, in Karl Young's Light and Dust Mobile Anthology of Poetry [http://www. thing.net/~l&d/grenier].)

Let me move from the economics that has thus far made Grenier's work inaccessible (to the reading public) to the economy of the work itself, which is tied to the inaccessibility of what it is on the page. The form of Grenier's composition -- letters 'drawn' in a scrawling, cranky, idiosyncratic hand; a hand writing words that 'imagine' the fact of the hand writing those words; a hand that in writing words 'imagines' those words, eye/hand coordination seeking out shapes, following letter 'values' as these reconfigure (as much as Grenier's mind may think) what to write next -- makes it all but impossible to read: read with the eye (silently), read with the lips (aloud). Words written on top of other words cannot be easily deciphered, nor can the overlay or superimposition of one word upon another be adequately vocalized in any way that would register the exact simultaneity of visual/verbal text(s) -- the words "my heart is beating" being placed, like a palimpsest whose components haven't disappeared, directly on top of the words "I am a beast" -- a simultaneity that is in fact registered on Grenier's page:

[Grenier Illustration: "my heart is beating/ I am a beast"]

(How then can Grenier's writing be read aloud? Grenier himself sometimes chooses to read it in an archly theatrical, stylized voice -- a voice not unlike the one we hear on Pound's Caedmon recordings -- not his 'own' voice clearly, the one he uses in ordinary speech, and yet it is 'his voice' -- a dramatic, exaggerated reading voice that is in fact his 'reading voice,' a voice that means to articulate the sound of words in air, as if the shape of these words, which can't be read, can only be read in an assumed voice, the reading voice of the historic/histrionic poet Robert Grenier.)

The visual text of words on the page, waiting to be read/sounded, becomes a text of the world. Grenier's words mean to enact that world in words, make (see) it happen literally here, as letters on the page, making the page itself a landscape. Physically moving from this point to that, each letter is the next event in an apparent stream, a medial space between eye and thing. The task is spelling, the power of words to engage with phenomena -- words as phenomena themselves -- to sound the world by spelling it in space the eye sees, voice reads, ear hears. What we see (shapes of letters on the page) exists in relation to what we see (shapes of landscape/events in the world); likewise, what we hear (sound of words in air) exists in relation to what we hear in the world itself (bird sounds, sounds of voices, cars, machines, silence) -- NOISE which is a form of music (Cage) whose "order . . . is the same order that controls the placing of the stars and the feathers in a bird's wing" (Zukofsky): shape of letters analogous to shape of landscape, sound of letters analogous to sound in world.

Take this poem for Larry Eigner (Fig. 1) here 'transcribed'/ 'translated' into type:

                                not 'handicapped'..
                                empowered by his
                                ability to
                                tee - pee
                                ## type --##
                                see the world
                                thought/dwell
                                shape the page

The shaping of the page in this case fills it, makes a poem that is itself the place (page) it occupies. A poem that is absolutely in place and absolutely about/of place (Fig. 2):

                                Tree
                                  and
                                this tree

                                is Absolute
                                    in its

                                light
                                + color
                                and
                                + color

What is going on is an act of attention by and in writing -- to the moment in the world the person 'sees'/'knows'/'believes' to be the moment he imagines, which is to say transcribes. (The title of Grenier's book/box of handwritten -- in black ink -- poems, WHAT I BELIEVE Transpiration / Transpiring Minnesota [O Books, 1991] suggests something of his epistemological concerns and his concerns for the practical physics of writing things down.)

Grenier's words make pictures of the things he 'sees' in the world -- the things his words 'see', words as figures in the act of attention he brings to bear (in words) in r h y m m s:

                                    ON TOP OF
                                Little Sun Temple
                                    On-Top-of
                                THE REAL SUN
                                The Real Sun

which draws the sun ('translated' as oblong circle) setting in the west over the Pacific near his home in Bolinas, a western-most point of land north of San Francisco, a place rocked by earthquake 90 years ago (1906), a place local inhabitants know to be separate from and separating from the rest of the continent and country. As a man raised in Minnesota who traveled first to the east, to school in Boston (Harvard) and later to teach in New England (Tufts and Franconia), then west as far as it is possible to go without launching forth into water, he makes the site of writing (looking west) count both literally, as what is going on around him, and analogically, as Donne's poem "Good Friday, 1613, Riding Westward" may be said to stand for a person's own last forward-looking journey into time. The oblong circle (red) meant to mark the place of the sun -- "Little Sun Temple" also red/read -- locates the fact of the world tangible, in ink that is itself an act of writing, on the top (or left) half of the page. The facing page of his notebook calls physically to mind another moment of sheer (transparent) perception:

                                                                    A corns
                                                                what
                                                                    ALONE
                                                                Thought
                                                                Watercourse
                                                                    Anyone

-- "Acorns" (red), "What / . . . / Thought / Anyone" (green), "Alone" (black), "Watercourse" (blue) transcribed in the verbal dimension as if to make the time of writing equal to the possibility that writing can be made to register what it 'sees' and is, thus, about.

The 'I' ('eye') these poems/pictures can be said to locate is one the person is/sees as fact itself. We/Words are such stuff, the things or acts we/they register. "Three" (black), for instance, means to place "A" (red) "kestrel" (green) underlined (red) "A" (blue) [space] "seagull" (blue) "A" (blue) "pelican" (red) "fly" (black) underlined (green) in an arrangement that points to parts of the world those words imagine. Eight words only in that poem, three of them one letter only ("A"), three of them the common names of west coast (shore or oceanic) birds; "three" and "fly," both in black ink, as if to state what happens in the poem's 'story' or 'plot,' being action enough to make the poem 'happen' (though it might well not be enough for the reader who would find a text like this to be slight, descriptive).

Leslie Scalapino, in her introduction to the book/box entitled WHAT I BELIEVE Transpiration / Transpiring Minnesota, writes that Grenier's "'book' is drawing which has no other translation ('reading') than its pictorial being ('shape') . . . . Grenier's poems are drawings which are "drawn" as if from the other side of the paper. As if he draws with his left hand." In a 1994 interview conducted in Boulder, Grenier himself says that "the shape of the letters of the composition is in fact what . . . it is about." The thingness of his writing -- the fact that it can't be 'translated' into type or 'read aloud' (at least not in any consistent way that would yield 'the poet's voice'; it is possible to read it, first one way, then another way, then another way, the 'thickness' of possible reading senses being one measure of its interest) or even easily produced as a book -- moves it backward, closer somehow to where it is that writing must first have come from, as if "the word," as he says, "could actually be the manifestation, the apparition, of something." That something is writing (in part), also 'shapes' of "something" else, an act of putting hand to paper, physical in the sense that the body does it at that time, like cutting the tree or splitting its wood when it's on the ground (sawdust) perfectly aware that that is what one is doing then, that literalness of activity becoming here the engagement with verbal process directly.

Grenier's letters are words becoming letters themselves, the "g" in "light" being generated out of the "s" in "Sept 1" or the Arabic "1" in "Sept 1" echoed in the lower case "l" in "light," in this poem (Fig. 3):

                                Sept 1
                                perfectly
                                dry &
                                light

Although one may think of Rimbaud's corresponding vowels -- "a" black, "e" white, "i" red, "u" green, "o" blue -- which leads circuitously to a symbolic equation between writing and the world, Grenier isn't in any meaningful sense a symbolist poet, since his writing pictures posit letter values in 'living' transformation, as (in time) life. One would do better to think of Egyptian hieroglyphs, the Chinese ideogram, pictures on the wall of a cave in the south of France.

Grenier's letters also become exact (measured) by means of the color the pen draws each with, another reason his poems are so difficult not only to read/decipher but to find in print, the cost of reproducing them being so great –

                                no arbor                   (green)
                                ________                 (blue)
                                harbor            (blue)
                                hare on          (red)
                                such               (green)

-- where the multiple rhyme-like links (attractions/oppositions in sound, shape and meaning) between "ARBOR" and "HARBOR" are enacted visually by the green and blue inks that demonstrate (schematically) the living color of each 'thing' in nature, the blue line suggesting both horizon and the line words position themselves in (on the page), the red of "HARE ON" like the red perhaps of its blood (beating) and the green of "SUCH" such that it spirals back to where the trees ("ARBOR") weren't. (Grenier claims that I have 'made up'/'invented' this poem -- that he didn't himself write it, which suggests how the reader in fact must [in part] 'invent' these poems in order to read them.) Or to take another example, how the blue, red and black inks of

                                drive off                   (blue)
                                darkness with  (red)
                                thunder                    (black)

figure the complex of acts (verbal, physical, psychic) caught in those five words, enacted as it were against the passage of such time as has in fact taken place, or, in Grenier's act of writing, as if they were happening in the actual time in which such 'things' are taking place.

Phenomena in the world is what Grenier means to write, unfolding in such time both as it does and as he notes it. "whoo" (black) begins a double (facing) page, placing (recording) the sound of wind as much as letters can, that is. And what follows across those two pages expands the present fact of that (wind, the sound it makes) back through time, transforming (by means of echo) wind itself to the wind Wyatt wrote (felt) in his own hand:

                                whoo                  (black)
                                an en                  (blue)
                                dless w         (green)
                                ind doth t            (black)
                                ear the sa           (red)
                                ____________     [page break]
                                yle a pay            (red)
                                ce off           (red)
                                this world            (blue)
                                all life                 (black)

The page 'here' -- I should say 'there, as drawn,' since one must engage with the interwovenness of shapes in order to feel it -- is instrument to what it plays, the splitting apart of words across its line breaks ("An endless wind doth tear the sail apace" is Wyatt's line) meaning to register Grenier's sense of the physical and also metaphorical world -- a world 'disordered' by its physics of fragmentation, in which the position of the observer determines what is perceived, and accelerated falling apart of our 'cultural moment' -- as well as an acknowledgment of literary influence (the attention to fact of words/world in Williams, Creeley and Eigner come to mind) and of the arbitrariness by which letters may be divided into words. Why not the word "dless"? Why not see and here "ear" in "tear"?

What Grenier hears and sees comes as closely as possible to be written. One poem is one world only: "crow" (black) followed on the page with three lines (blue) -- actually the word "by," so "crow" actually flies "by" -- one a curving as of the body, the other a trajectory of its flight (Fig. 4). (Grenier's concentration on 'one poem'/'one world' may be a development of the Romantic aesthetic of 'moment,' or of Pound's vortex of radiant "gists," "nodes" or "knots," a blowing up of minutiae through attention to particles (letters) in formation as these 'loop' on the page, as long as one wishes or is able to attend to what is therein 'given'/'said').

Two other poems of sound perception reduced to its essential components 'hear' a moment in the world metamorphosed into a visual map in letters (Fig. 5):

                                   TWO O
                                WLS STaRtiNG
                                WWL BEfORe
                                SUNdoWN

Letters take on a life of their own 'here' -- again I should say 'there' since the versions of the poems as I present them here are typewritten 'translations,' 'inventions' that run the risk of reducing drawn shapes to their 'meaning' 'here' -- the doubling of "o"'s (blue) linking "TWO" and "OWLS" into the two-note chord their sound plays; the doubling of "s"'s in "O [blue] WL [black] S [red]" and "STaRtiNG [red]" linking thing to act; "SUNdo" [red] followed by "WN" [black] registering the leaving of light from the earth (day) when sun sets.

Or take as a final example this poem about owls, whose text (Fig. 6), which reads (unscrambled) "TWO OWLS HOOT," is an almost impossible-to-figure-out scrawl of circles, lines, diagonals in blue, black, red and green, colored inks marking the territory of the page upon which such event has been transformed into language whose aim is to know the world literally, and make it know(n). As Grenier said in his talk "Larry Eigner and the Task of American Letters," delivered at SUNY Buffalo in October 1994, the literal (words) and numeral (numbers) are the same 'it': what is literally there -- 'you'/"This very thing you are" (Olson). Writing is metamorphosis, a transformation of the physical body and its experience into the physical body of words -- a body we experience when we read writing or hear it read. In the act of reading writing being written, the shapes/'senses' of letters show Grenier what is thus there to be seen, as if language were, at times, a 'sixth sense' participating along with everything else in whatever apprehension writing attempts to testify to, i.e., 'contact' with words and world. As such, writing is also a 'graphing-voice' via breath, a realization of 'things' (letters) on the 'discrete manifold' of the typewritten page (Eigner) -- or rather, in this case, 'things' (letters) drawn as shapes through the 'continuous manifold' of the 'wrap-around' of notebook 'place.'

What exists in that 'place' -- Grenier's white, two-dimensional notebook page marked with blue, red, green and black scrawls -- is an image of what Olson called muthologos, an image of "what is said of what is said." Words in such a place are more than 'words' -- the article "A," the article "THE" -- because thinking (in words) and being are the same (and also different): as in Stein's portrait "Bernard Faÿ," there is hope in Grenier's "A," there is hope in Grenier's "THE," in language in which "A is A" and "A is B," not identical but also so. Given that "only imagination is real," "no ideas but in things" (Williams), Grenier's work stretches the capacity of language to invoke an 'in-dwelling' apprehension/awareness of being alive -- by which I mean also to include the capacity of the reader's mind who perceives that language to enact meaning, of and in the world, meaning in which 'things' are both the same and different, both 'made up' and 'literally noted,' true.