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We are sad to report that Leslie Scalapino died after a brief illness on 28 May 2010. This piece was accepted for Jacket early in 2010.


Leslie Scalapino
It’s go in horizontal: Selected Poems 1974-2006
Day Ocean State of Stars’ Night: Poems & Writings 1989 & 1999-2006
reviewed by
Michael Cross
It’s go in horizontal: Selected Poems 1974-2006 University of California Press, 2008 241pp. ISBN: 978-0-520-25461-9
Day Ocean State of Stars’ Night: Poems & Writings 1989 & 1999-2006 Green Integer, 2007 205pp. ISBN: 978-1-933382-83-8

Leslie Scalapino

Leslie Scalapino

Out the Window


In the early 1980s, Leslie Scalapino began an intervention that called for nothing less than the defenestration of the fixed subject in postmodern American poetry; however, rethinking the agent’s stability meant, for Scalapino, necessarily challenging the role of the reader as similarly mercurial—a nexus of erotic, political, and social investments and divestitures. As such, Scalapino, like her modernist predecessor Gertrude Stein, set out to invent her readers — to enter a space with them in which the illusions of causality and sovereignty disengage from the subject’s experience of herself. Scalapino writes in her recent “memoir” Zither and Autobiography,


          I freaked out and beginning then [at fourteen] sought (later in writing) the ‘anarchist moment’—the moment that would be only disjunction itself.
          In the process, I’ve created this memory track. Yet had the sense that I had to make fixed memories move as illusion, that they move as illusions. (2)


Her two current volumes perfectly capture this “anarchist moment” while performing the unenviable task of illustrating a poetry that, by its very nature, eschews representation. The first, It’s go in horizontal (University of California, 2008), is a requisite and carefully edited “selected poems,” tracing the polyvalence of Scalapino’s thought from her earliest engagements to more recent experiments, while the second, Day Ocean State of Stars’ Night (Green Integer, 2007), magnifies shorter meditations from the last decade, emphasizing her interest in the “variable stanza.” As such, these companion volumes act together as a useful point of departure for readers to come, even as they struggle to speak definitively for an author who consistently reinvents herself with each subsequent line.


It’s go in horizontal opens with Scalapino’s first full-length collection, Considering how exaggerated music is. Published in 1982 by North Point Press, this volume collects her earliest forays in “phenomenal research,” including such chapbooks as The Woman Who Could Read the Mind of Dogs and Instead of an Animal. These first works begin the exploration of a subject without boundary, of the human as an aggregate of action and motion and animal impulse rather than the telos of subjectivity. Her goal is to be the subject in writing, in real-time—to trace her becoming, her dissolution, the florescence of her “subjecthood.” Rather than objectify the subject as a product of second nature, everything here is related or enmeshed in interdependence. There is never a single bond, and thus, poetry can never wholly represent its driving impulse. She writes on the very first page,


How can I help myself,        as one woman said to me about wanting
To have intercourse with strange men,                from thinking of a man
(someone whom I don’t know) as being like a seal. I mean I see a man
(in a crowd such as a theatre) as having the body of a seal in the way
a man would, say be in bed with someone, kissing and barking,
which is the way a seal will bark and leap on his partly-fused hind limbs. (3)


While we are trained to read the poem as a controlled narrative in which actions link by causal association—or where mere parataxis wins the day through a kind of otiose shock and awe—Scalapino unhinges the temporal, causal, and spatial relationships between events and impressions so that none are directly linked but all are directly implicated. This experiment is extended in her next collection, That They Were at the Beach, but the temporal and spatial divides are completely dismantled in order for experience to happen as it actually happens, as a nonlinear, palimpsest of memory, sensation, and desire:


A microcosm, but it’s of girls—who were far down on the field, in another situation of playing ball—so it was an instance of the main world though they’re nubile but are in age thirteen or so. (29)


While she populates the work with “events,” the poem takes into account the nature of event by dismantling “real” action in an almost cubist fashion, in which gestures happen simultaneously, one on top of the other. Rather than populate the poem with nostalgic affect, Scalapino uses the details of the past as musical and visual sequence, part of the physical instantiation of language itself. The one constant in Scalapino’s work is its fundamentally heuristic character—rather than behave as text, her writing sites the provisional shape of a subject struggling to maintain autonomy in a shifting grid of power. As such, her work is true experiment, the test of what reader and writer and poem can do. Her writing moves through the imaginary boundaries that separate inside from outside, mind from body, singular from social. Its goal is to uncover, inhabit, and unbind hierarchies of entrenched power as they pull the subject back into axioms and imponderables—to trace the mind’s struggle with its own bids for power while simultaneously addressing itself as phenomena. Scalapino’s challenge, then, is to construct a temporary site of freedom, a test of what might be—the site where thought becomes available to itself.


In the second half of the book, her preoccupation with the surface of genre becomes increasingly important, as does the reader’s level of participation; while the challenge established at the beginning of the collection remains constant, Scalapino alters the conditions by which thought is tested. In books such as Crowd and not evening or light (O Books, 1992), The Front Matter, Dead Souls (Wesleyan University Press, 1996), and Zither and Autobiography (Wesleyan University Press, 2003), she attempts to unstring sovereignty through the use of generic literary structures including serial writing and autobiography. In The Front Matter Dead Souls, for example, Scalapino’s first book for Wesleyan University Press, the author writes “a serial novel for publication in the newspaper” in which “The writing is to be as close as possible to nature itself not actually occurring” (1). The selections in Its go in horizontal perfectly capture the spirit of the project, in which the genre of the “newspaper serial” allows the author to play with literary conventions as a kind of artificial frame by which to experiment with temporal process. She writes,


            My tears are then on a face of a hyena submerged in the air when I’m running.
            It’s on the red ball a retina.
            It makes no difference how one responds as long as there is that. The response,
there, has to be increased continually, like some still drug. H.D.’s thousand–
petalled lily. (149)  


Working within genre, Scalapino is in some ways more free to experiment with a thoroughly demanding concurrence: blazingly vivid images (often verging on the surreal) disorient the reader while the author tracks the movement of her mind, ranging from anti-war polemic to aesthetic consideration of the very line unfolding. As opposed to a kind of stream-of-consciousness fantasia, however, the writer’s attention is exacting and painfully conscious of the potential traps of introspection. The work maintains fidelity to multiple sites of attention, desire, and political affiliation, while constantly revealing itself, constantly showing its seams. In some ways, Scalapino is our most literal thoroughly objective poet, as she refuses to lean on figures or symbols to hone in on the “mineral fact.”


This is perhaps why these volumes act as such useful companions. As it is imperative to live in the work to hear its movement, Day Ocean State of Stars’ Night serves as a kind of resonant sound chamber. Collecting work published in chapbooks and artist’s books from the last decade (and including new writing such as “The Forest is in the Euphrates River,” collected here for the first time), the shorter length of these selections is perfectly suited to the ears of novice readers. Further, the book usefully captures two separate impulses: while catering to Scalapino’s “variable stanzas” in poems like DeLay Rose, in which short lines explode across the right-hand margin of the page, melting into disjointed syllables and torqued clauses, readers get a glimpse of her prose-based work, representative of such “fiction novels” as Orchard Jetsam (Tuumba, 2001) and Dahlia’s IrisSecret Autobiography and Fiction (FC2, 2003). While the former “mode” is one of texture, in the latter, readers sink into complex prose lines in which image, occurrence, and analysis coexist as syntax shape:


The hatchling minotaur can force because she is encouraged by Iago. The forest is the black-rose floor only. The hatchling, spewing, revved into another gear lies to the others—yet in front of one they appear not to even care if this is true—maintaining mother was being forced by one to be treated. (128)


In this most recent prose work, Scalapino deftly alternates through a variety of registers, often using a single line to accomplish multiple levels of extension. Her images act as a hieroglyphic lexicon of sumo wrestlers, hyenas, and black roses, moving in and around lyric passages as sonic or visual texture. Most interesting, however, is the manner in which critical prose seeps through the syntax of her lines, so that at any juncture the attention of the work can turn to Shakespeare, Halliburton, or the work itself as “secret” aesthetic theory.


These companion volumes provide a compelling case as to why Scalapino remains an influential figure for so many poets. In her work, readers see a truly plastic stage by which the ongoing practice of experiment coexists with the dissolution of subjectivity. By demanding that the subject account for herself at every turn, Scalapino’s project makes available the invisible patterns of social and political agency we often take for granted; as such, we come to read our participation as we watch the contours of subjectivity fade to black.

Michael Cross

Michael Cross

Michael Cross is the author of In Felt Treeling (Chax), editor of Atticus/Finch Chapbooks, and co-editor of ON: Contemporary Practice. He is finishing a book on Louis Zukofsky.

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