Reading Blog

Friday, 23 November 2018

Today’s reading: 

Sherry Simon’s piece on cities and translation in “The Massachusetts Review” from the stack of issues marked with post-its and lent to me by Una. What do Salonica, Calcutta, and Trieste have in common? And why, I wonder, does Simon feel moved to reach beyond her Montréal—another translational city—to these examples? Not that I mind. I’m just interested in what evidence or proof is. Or perhaps that’s not it. Maybe she wants her translational city to be less alone by situating it as a star within a constellation.

And apropos of nothing but the social life of reading: I like that the Trieste section featured Italo Svevo, whose Zeno’s Conscience I have loved since I borrowed it from Marcus during our era of weekly laundromat dates. Wicked book thief, I have not returned it.

I also finished two books: Fra Keeler, the first book by Azareen van der Vliet Oloomi (published by Dorothy in 2012) and the tatters by Brenda Coultas (Wesleyan, 2014). I want to send the latter to Katy to see what she’ll make of it. The love Coultas has for trash—scraps—her eponymous tatters, reminds me of my family’s house. Not that home is filled with trash, per se, but rather that it is full of things and things resemble beings in that they decay.

Jumping back in to Karen Barad’s Meeting the Universe Halfway: quantum physics and the entanglement of matter and meaning the other day (because Amanda and I were talking about time), I was reminded that meaning and matter are inextricably entangled, even for the physicists (especially for physicists?). As plastics—for a concrete example, I am thinking of a set of red plastic cups my family has had in use my whole life—off-gas or blanch in the sun, in what ways do their meanings decay or shift? What shifts in meaning when an object is discarded? When a whole class of objects persists materially after its obsolescence?

Certain collections produce in me a fear of decay and death. They produce a kind of radiation that warps reality into a specific shape that is for my sensitive self almost incontrovertible.

I don’t have any reason to assume that artists who apply themselves to the consideration of trash, touch trash, work with trash as a medium, are immune to this fear, so when I encounter the work of these poets, it is with a healthy dose of respect!

The poem below isn’t really representative of Coultas’s trashwork, but it is a manifesto for the alchemical purposes of her endeavor, especially since she returns to the image of constructing a “tower of light” later in the collection.



I found a pearl and wore it in my ear

Deep ocean echoes sing like a seashell


A girl promised a purse filled with jewels, if I would be her friend

Purses open secrets as priceless as pills in a jeweled box


Loose pearls, enough to imagine what a great loss that necklace was or

was not


I like to see metal turn red and glow and to hear its hiss when it meets

the water. Leather bellows, suspended from the ceiling, pump air into

the fire. Long-handled tongs and picks forge mostly nails. I open all the

old purses. There might be change left in one.


I built you a tree of light to see by

To listen to digital libraries in your palm.

Renamed myself writing this book, renamed myself after building

this tree


I burnt candles all night to grow these leaves.


I fed books to the flame, to make a blaze to read by

Mined libraries to power this tower of light


Built sparkling branches

with flaming pages for leaves

dense as the weeping willow’s cascade of curls


On the mountain ridge my tree stands head and shoulders above

the hardwoods. Along the roadway wooden poles, bathed in chemicals

hold up a network of wire


I built a tree, more cell than sweeping pine or black walnut, as natural

as pink pine needles or a silver holiday tree. Glittery pine boughs glue-

gunned on


No needles on the floor

No forest smell


My gift is glittery and eternal

even in synthetic shreds

dumped on a landlocked city sidewalk

it finds its way to the sea (Coultas 1-2)


When I was talking about the collecting habits of my family, I wanted to use the word ersatz, but it didn’t feel right. These final stanzas make me reconsider as Coultas celebrates trash’s ultimately terrible beauty and as I look up its origins:

Ersatz can be traced back in English to 1875, but it really came into prominence during World War I. Borrowed from German, where Ersatz is a noun meaning "substitute," the word was frequently applied as an adjective in English to items like coffee (from acorns) and flour (from potatoes) - ersatz products resulting from the privations of war.

Especially since I was plodding on with Josep Pla tonight in the tub, he had an entry in his The Gray Notebook about the end of WWI and later used weaning oneself off of margarine (an ersatz butter) as an analogy. I actually didn’t really plan to talk about the tatters. I wanted to quote from this passage of Pla’s:

5 September. I often wonder if this diary is sincere, if it is a bona fide record of my innermost state.

            The first question one must ask oneself is: Is it possible to express what is innermost? I mean, to achieve a clear, coherent, intelligible description of our innermost being. What is really innermost, in essence, must be spontaneity pure and simple, that is, a visceral, untrammeled flow. If we had the language and the vocabulary to encapsulate this flow, there would be no problem. But the fact is that no style exists that can give voice to that authenticity, never mind find the right lexicon. However, even if we were to imagine for a moment that it was possible to express our innermost state, who would grasp or understand it? If it weren’t unique, highly individual, very personal, and totally elemental, what would it look like, how could one imagine its presence? When we are unable to see through our inner fog, we usually say “I know what I mean. [emphasis mine] (Pla 182)

Compare this passage one from Wittgenstein’s Zettel, while imagining that the two friends to whom Wittgenstein alludes are what Pla might call the inner and outer self:

Wenn ich zwei Freunde gleichen Namens habe, und ich schreibe einem von ihnen einen Brief; worin liegt es, daß ich ihn nicht dem andern schreibe? Am Inhalt? Aber der könnte für beide passen. (Die Adresse habe ich noch nicht geschrieben.) Nun, die Verbindung kann in der Vorgeschichte liegen. Dann aber auch in dem, was dem Schreiben folgt. Wenn mich nun jemand fragt “An welchen der beiden schreibst du?” und ich antworte ihm, schließe ich die Antwort aus der Vorgeschichte? Gebe ich sie nicht beinahe, wie ich sage “Ich habe Zhnschmerzen”?—Könnte ich im Zweifel darüber sein, welchem von beiden ich schreibe? Und wi sieht so ein Zweifelsfall aus?—Ja, wäre nicht auch der Fall einer Täuschung möglich: ich glaube dem Einen zu schreiben und schreibe dem Andern? und Wie sähe der Fall einer solchen Täuschung aus? (2-3)

Which G.E.M. Anscombe translates as:

If I have two friends with the same name and am writing one of them a letter, what does the fact that I am not writing it to the other consist in? In the content? But that might fit either. (I haven’t yet written the address.) Well, the connexion might be in the antecedents. But in that case it may also be in what follows the writing. If someone asks me “Which of the two are you writing to?” and I answer him, do I infer the answer from the antecedents? Don’t I give it almost as I say “I have a toothache”?—Could I be in doubt which of the two I was writing to? And what is a case of such a doubt like?—Indeed, couldn’t there also be an illusion of this kind: I believe I am writing to one of them when in fact I am writing to the other? And what would such a case of illusion look like? (2e-3e)

The broader relationship here is between expression and intention. Wittgenstein asks a lot of questions in the tatters that make up Zettel about what it means to mean and what it means to say that one means (intends) someone or something or that one means to perform a certain task. He asks lots of childlike questions and entertains lots of hypothetical scenarios in response, including the scenarios he seems to find the most instructive in which the language game fails.

I believe him to be the most beloved philosopher of the poets, at least the ones I know.

I should mention that I pulled out Zettel because I was making stacks of books for different areas I want to write about and I unearthed an almost completely intact stack I had formed of books from my Hélène Cixous reading list (Lispector, Kafka, Bernhard, Bachmann, etc.). I collected the books over time and brought them together as I was re-reading Three Steps on the Ladder of Writing for my manuscript “Self-Possession” and when I taught my Threshold Academy workshop this past summer (in which we moved through Cixous’s three schools: of the dead, of dreams, and of roots).