How Phenomena Appear to Unfold
by Leslie Scalapino

Reviewed by Jose-Luis Moctezuma


Published by Litmus Press, 2011   |   312 pages

In the preface to How Phenomena Appear to Unfold, Leslie Scalapino describes the architecture of her startling book as “an ongoing, flexible structure that incorporates demonstrations of its gestures, such as poem-plays and poem-sequences alongside essays, the essays also demonstrations—of my own poetics and of other poets’ works.” Intermittently autobiography, critical digest, poetry collection, photo album, sketchbook, poetic diary, translation, song book, etc., the events of the book cluster alongside each other but always remain separate, disembodied organs. This absence of a controlling subject, or hierarchical body, is the crucial aspect of Scalapino’s lustrous, enigmatic work, a continuous displacement or gap around which the book’s poetic events gather and form a constellation of permeable surfaces.

Litmus Press’ publication of How Phenomena Appears to Unfold is not so much a re-publication of the original edition of the same title in 1989 (originally published by Potes & Poets), but an expansion that constitutes an almost completely different book: the text’s structural coherence, in fact, is based upon the possibility of an infinite aggregation. How Phenomena Appears to Unfold can, in one sense, be read as the summation of a life (Scalapino’s) of intense perceptiveness of not only books and texts and performances, but also of phenomenal and psychic surfaces, social and political histories, episodes in private lives and public spheres—of insides and outsides infolding, outfolding, and interweaving. Or How Phenomena Appears to Unfold can be read as an injunction to the reader to break the habits of reading in a linear or hierarchical fashion, to reconsider how texts relate to one another on a level that breaks with genre distinctions and coincides with the ground-degree-zero of the innately perceptual: with what Scalapino calls the “seamless antilandscape,” comprised not of images but of a voiding of images, neither visual nor narratological but purely physical and spatially active.

The career of Leslie Scalapino, in this respect, has always been one centering on, or breaking out of, the “crisis of form,” a phrase she uses to characterize the poetics and philosophy of the great American modernist poet H.D. (whose presence is felt here alongside those of Gertrude Stein, Robert Duncan, and Philip Whalen). For Scalapino, the crisis of form is the struggle against the regulatory postulates and facile demarcations of genre categorization, arbitrary chronologies, and hierarchies of reading. Scalapino writes of the variegated contents that make up her book (which can easily shift from poems to essays about the poems, to visual translations of the essays about the poems): “Many of my essays and poetic works have as their subject and intention simultaneity of time in language and event of history, as the writing. The intent of the language as ‘the inside’ and ‘the outside’ as action is to dismantle hierarchy, a dialectic determining the order of the selections in this collection.” Positing language as the “inside” of the book and political action as the “outside,” Scalapino proposes the possibility of opening up her own essays and poems (written in a time frame that runs from 1983 to 2010) to a historical, eminently “optical” outside that informs (and in-forms) the book’s contents in a stream that runs in two directions: into the multiple (and historically stratified) plateaus of the text, and outside the text into a present-tense realm (the reader’s own contextual place in space-time) that “unfolds as event,” what Scalapino calls the “instant of occurrence”:

The intention in composition of talk-performance-essays as a political-social enactment is to create and be in participation with enacting a non-hierarchical, “free” state of community… Many of my poetic works have the purpose of the writing “seeing as altering oneself and altering negative social formation—as such, tracking of being and the instant of occurrence.” “Being” as simultaneous with/as “the instant of occurrence” create each other. The future creates the past.

For Scalapino, the reader’s relationship with the text is always political (“in the present”) because it produces the possibility of taking action or of seeing something in the act of unfolding; true perception, in this sense, takes shape as an invitation to a mentally self-aware activity: “The poems as sequences therefore are the relation of one to outside, rather than being the social convention/representation of the person as an insulated life, unrelated to history.”

The Occurrence (the act of the Book becoming itself, forming borders of knowledge but also streams of optical content that runs both ways) is, paradoxically, what is left unseen throughout the pages of How Phenomena Appears to Unfold. The book’s title seems to offer a self-aware paronomasia on the uncertain act of perception: how phenomena “appear” to unfold is only, and entirely, that—how they appear to unfold. Scalapino’s book formally and structurally mirrors this situation: it is a “non-entity” insofar as it does not establish any rules for its own parameters or performance. The events are always seen, on a microcosmic level, but the Occurrence itself, of the Book occurring as a closed form, never actually occurs: the Occurrence is always happening on a molecular level, in which the inside content shares “porous exchange” with the outside context.

The work progresses sequentially through repeated pattern-formations (poem, explanation of poem, application of the explanans to the outside work of other poets), tapestries of textual/pictorial patterns that play with the reader’s ability to navigate between genres and media set on a single plane of interaction. Scalapino incorporates photographs (of debating Tibetan monks in “Image/Word in Crowd and Not Evening or Light and The Tango”), drawings by other artists (Kiki Smith’s images of “women being eaten by animals” from Scalapino’s The Animal is in the World like Water in Water), and photocopied “scrawled” writing (from Robert Grenier’s “I am a Beast/My Heart is Beating” and “Loon Loon”), which rupture the evenness of the book’s terrain. Just as Scalapino explains it (discussing the poetry of Philip Whalen), “the unfolding of the phenomena of the poem occurs as a stream of images, scenes, comments, and personages from history, radio, and the movies”; similarly, How Phenomena Appear to Unfold registers the infolding and unfolding of the complex mediational history of Scalapino’s, and the reader’s, intellectual life.

Scalapino, who passed away in 2010, leaves behind in How Phenomena Appear to Unfold not only a summa poetica for her philosophy of composition but also a living record of the intricate thought processes that shaped her life since its first publication in 1989. Like the “poetic diaries” she valued in the work of the poets of the Japanese Heian Era (notably, Murasaki Shikibu, who makes her appearance in the sections “Poetic Diaries” and “Murasaki Duncan”), How Phenomena Appear to Unfold contains the shining residue of a life lived in its minutest particulars, one resolutely open to an “ecology of porous exchanges” between the reader and herself. As Scalapino explains in the titular essay, the politics of the event (the relationship of the reader to the text, for instance) ultimately assumes a politics of form: “Anyone’s perception of cause and effect, and their ordering in the writing, is a conception of the unfolding of phenomena. It is oneself, and is the recreation and examination of that. There is no authority, no objectivity.”

Jose-Luis Moctezuma is a current doctoral student at the University of Chicago. His studies focus on technologies of the image in poetry, cinema, and literature. His work has been/will be published by Berkeley Poetry Review, PALABRA, and Cerise Press.

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