Reading Blog

Acts of Location

In one of the entries in my daybook, Self-Possession, I ask, “How do I write our way in without building a wall, a gate?” The we of our begins (and ends?) for me in shared slantness. The sisterhood of the slant or, for Zebra, protagonist of Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi’s Call Me Zebra, those who occupy the “pyramid of exile.” To say nothing of the responsibility of the slant for each other, given the variety of the conditions of our slantness. Van der Vliet Oloomi writes:

“Think of Ravenna,” I said. “Think of Dante buried there in exile. Forgotten. Abandoned. Banished. He lives at the bottom of the pyramid. Not in its catacombs, which are reserved for those even less fortunate than Dante, but at the bottom nevertheless. But you,” I said, “live somewhere at the top of the pyramid. As a man in voluntary exile, you have access to the most oxygen. You are at the peak of a mountain, filling your lungs with pure oxygenated air, unaware that each time you take a step you are stomping on the heads of those less fortunate than you. I am one of those,” I said. “I live in the middle of the pyramid. There is a sea of refugees beneath me. The pyramid constantly gets fed with fresh blood.” “The upper echelons?” he retorted. “Not bad.” He seemed pleased with himself. (71)

Movement through space is very important to Zebra. Her journey out of Iran haunts her as do each of her successive moves to Catalonia then New York and back. What’s more, given her nigh unshakeable faith, “…writers, all of whom, in one way or another, had been touched by exile,” Zebra’s mind is a palimpsest of the itineraries of those writers (Van der Vliet Oloomi, 88).

By virtue of her first book, Fra Keeler, Van der Vliet Oloomi shares a press with Renee Gladman. I don’t know if I can fully speak yet to what it is these two writers share, not because I don’t have hunches, but because I haven’t fleshed them out yet. For now let’s just say, shared slantness with respect to space.

Although I had known and appreciated Renee Gladman’s work before moving, I didn’t feel as much of a visceral connection until I left Oakland, CA for Northampton, MA. Moving was a huge rupture in multiple ways, not least of which in terms of the transition from cities (Austin>Dallas>San Francisco>Oakland) to small town (Northampton). I was an avid urban roamer with a greatly reduced area to walk in: temporally as well as spatially, with the introduction of winter. As usual, Zoe-the-poet is several moves ahead. In Reality Field Generator, I wrote:


Bereft of city in which

to be flâneuse I must

find other avenues to wander

to keep my wander alive


And again in Self-Possession:

If I know how to walk, I’m a writer. It’s too cold to walk much here. So rather than my physical body as the dreaming body, my physical body sends out the dreaming body—the soul.

Nostalgic and melancholic, I constructed dream architectures: ghostly skyscrapers and non-existent neighborhoods joined (or superimposed) in my imagination with ‘consensus reality’ Northampton. If my legs and my eyes suffered from an insufficiency of architecture, I began to think (/turned again in a new way to) architecture: Paul Willems (translated by Edward Gauvin) built a cathedral in prose from that most ethereal and anti-architectural of phenomena: mist, while Lucas Crawford’s Transgender Architectonics introduced me to the closest thing to a real version of this: the Blur building, designed by architectural agency DS+R.

Bachelard first articulated for me that architecture can be a skin and a shell as well as a space, that to engage with bodies one ought to engage with architecture, that architecture, like all human endeavors touched by the aesthetic, oscillates between the real and the imaginary (like bodies do). Crawford extrapolates from these general principles to talk about trans buildings and trans bodies.

In The Construction of the Tower of Babel (La construcción de la torre de Babel, translated by Adrian Nathan West), I watched Juan Benet, builder, apply himself with absolute rigor to the finer points of the architecture of the tower of babel, affirming yet again rigorous looking as a successful first principle for artist and writer alike.

Note that both the Willems and the Benet books are published by Cambridge, MA’s Wakefield Press, specifically its Imagining Architecture series.

Transgender Architectonics? Important to me but inaccessible at $55 and unlikely to be found outside of a university library. And yes, once you know about a book, there are ways to get it, but part of the public service that bookstores and libraries do is to put it in front of you.

This post has ended up, as much as anything, an endorsement of the editorial perspectives of Dorothy’s Danielle Dutton and Wakefield Press’s Judy Feldmann and Marc Lowenthal, and endorsement of the ongoing echoes of the paperback revolutions big bang, in which completely essential materials for rigorous reverie like these are accessible to public thinkers. The only thing that feels a little absurd to me is that Houghton Mifflin Harcourt published Call Me Zebra. I hope they gave Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi a pile of money!