Joan Retallack "ERRATA 5UITE"
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 EDITORS: Kenneth Sherwood and Loss Pequen~o Glazier        Version  2.1
 ISSN#: 1070-0072                                           Winter  1994
Copyright (c) 1994.  All rights revert to author(s) upon publication.
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< H A N K   L A Z E R >
        Review of _Errata 5uite_ (poems) by Joan Retallack, 1993,
          63 pages, paperback, $8.00, Edge Books (PO Box 25642,
          Washington DC 20007)
     I came across Retallack's book under interesting circumstances.  I was
in Los Angeles to give a salon reading at Sun & Moon Press, and I had the
chance to visit John Cage's installation "Rolywholyover  A Circus" at the
Museum of Contemporary Art.  The first room of the exhibition consists of a
long table set up for browsing and for playing chess, surrounded by two
large cabinets of books and papers (some of which would be changed every
day). In fact, at first I smiled knowingly and thought that the two people
sitting down playing chess were part of the installation, but as we spoke
to one another I realized that they were no more installed than I was.  I
felt like I had arrived at John Cage's house only to find a note:  "I've
gone to the country.  Make yourself at home.  Feel free to browse."  The
book-browsing was a delight.  One of the first books I found was
Retallack's _Errata 5uite_ (which, apparently, had just been published).
Then, during my stay in L.A., the poet/editor/critic A. L. Nielsen, with
whom I was taping a radio show for KSJS, gave me a copy of Retallack's
earlier book, _Circumstantial Evidence_. So, circumstantially, or by chance,
my trip to L.A. became a way to realize that Retallack's poetry has now
begun to gather in significance, strength, force, and importance.  (Such
has already been known of her critical intelligence for some time now.)
     At once philosophical and playful, intelligent and error-prone, Joan
Retallack's Errata 5uite is a remarkable production.  Bringing together the
errata slip with the five lines of the musical staff, Retallack constructs
a space for thinking.  Such a space bears kinship to the stanza--that is,
it makes a room for thinking; it also asks us to rethink fundamental
questions: poetry is a space for what?  From the cover art (also by
Retallack) to the title (written on a five line staff) to the series of
five-line pages, Retallack's is a book which exhibits proudly an awareness
of its own constructedness.  As one of Cage's favorites, Thoreau, wrote in
Walden, "shall we forever resign the pleasure of construction to the
carpenter?." In terms of Kandinsky's division of modern art into two
polarities--expressionist and constructionist--Retallack's work positions
itself decisively in the latter camp.  Such a commitment marks a
considerable shift in her poetry from the earlier work represented in
_Circumstantial Evidence_ (1985).
     Let me present a sample (as best I can reproduce it) of a typical page
in Retallack's book (though in its layout in the book, both right and left
margins are justified, and there are a few accent marks which my lack of
computer-expertise may not allow me to reproduce):
  read for for four last line misting eart aron (of) spoken rhythms untitled
  add a pronoun what it is/has agitated to a strange and not (for) tensor
  analytic reads as reads as follows crossing the ford where Emerson saw the
  sky glad to the brink of fear ybore dislodg-ed enso semiamazia o tics of
  zero sum ergo blather to rush to race to wander
If poetry, as a heuristic mode of thinking, allows chance, errors, and
stammers to figure into its arsenal of what even a compulsively eloquent
poet such as Wallace Stevens would call "sudden rightnesses," then the
reader of such poetry must learn to inhabit a reading-space which is less
rigidly thematized, less linearly insistent than the poetry of most earlier
moderns, including Stevens.  If there is a recurring "about" in Retallack's
book, it is "about" processes of reading--as in the errata slip,
recurrently a reading by replacement, "for x read y" (but also more
philosophically, "why read?").
     In miniature, the passage I have reproduced from Retallack's book
enacts many of the possibilities under investigation in _Errata 5uite_.  It
is the reader, in the rushes and stays of path-making, who enacts these
possibilities.  If we attend to our own processes in sense-making, and in
delight at the disturbance of habitual forms of sense-making, our own
phenomenology of reading becomes itself a heuristic device.  Oddly, there
is an authoritative tone to the errata slip--we are ordered into certain
directions of reading and substitution.  But the reproduction of the errors
themselves introduces a humor opposite (or is it apposite) to the command
voice of correction.  So that, as in the carefully multiple
manuscript-poems of Emily Dickinson, the poems and the passages do not
stabilize into their singularly corrected print but remain in their
multiply noted directions. Retallack's errata suites equivocate:  both the
"error" and the "correction" are given voice (or, more accurately, space
within which to be printed, and recognized).  Within such a field of
multiplicity, what Marjorie Perloff in an earlier phase of her scholarship
might have called a hymn to possibility, one such hymn, but now in a new
context, is that old tune of lyrical epiphany, a pleasing trace which
haunts much experimental writing, from that of John Cage to that of Susan
Howe.  In Retallack's passage, it is the Emersonian moment of the
transparent eyeball, glad to the brink of fear, a moment which (by its
familiarity) emerges from the welter of Retallack's dense textuality as a
kind of comforting narrative release.  Oddly enough, rather than Emerson's
own sudden retreat from the moment of insight and self-obliteration (back
into the conventions of the forward-moving essay), since Retallack's own
writing is not premised on self-expression but is (like Cage's) already
built on self- erasure, paradoxically, Retallack's fractured langauge
allows her/us to enter more substantially and decisively into the realm of
Emerson's ecstatic experience and to dwell there by means of a language not
tied to syntactical and semantic correctness.  We cross the ford into
"ybore disoldg-ed enso semiamazia o tics of/ zero sum ergo blather to rush
to race to wander."  In a sense, Retallack plays Emerson against himself.
His own attention to the magical, philosophical properties of the
individual word--which Emerson finds to be a fossil holding the traces of
certain fundamental truths which we, as inspired readers (and
philologists), can decode--now is employed with the attention to the
individual word that we'd find in Stein (of Tender Buttons or the
Portraits).  If the word does have the resources that Emerson claims for
it, then much of twentieth century experimental writing has been a
literalizing and an exploring of those potentials.  To put it politically,
such poetry reclaims the rights of the signifier.  But those rights are not
claimed on behalf of the word as a vessel of truth but on behalf of the
word itself (freed of any preconceived obligation to a "higher" truth other
than the possibilities of its own particular being).
     Many of the finest sections of Errata 5uite are built from the
writings of others.  Similar to Cage's process of writing through others,
Retallack's compositions are more a mode of radicalized anthologizing.
That is, she exercises more choice in her selections and builds from them
more willfully. Here is one such example:
  art is a mode of prediction not found in charts & statistics (D1) poetry
  and religious feeling will be the unforced flowers of life (D1) practical
  socialism consists rather in a correct knowledge of the capitalist (E1) for
  the sceptics the ideal was to be optimistic (F1) the methodological
  preeminence that thus belongs to poetry (G1)
But what is "the methodological preeminence that thus belongs to poetry"?
Perhaps as David Antin argued in essays and interviews in the early 1970s,
the foundational activity for modernist writing is collage.  Perhaps, as in
some of Retallack's work, that methodological preeminence comes from and
illuminates the acts of reading and recomposing--reading as a means to
writing (and writing as a means to reading).
     I know that for readers of RIF/T it is not necessary to ask that
typically conservative, xenophobic question:  "but is it really poetry?".
Nevertheless, in relation to Retallack's work in _Errata 5uite_, I find it
profitable to engage some of those square questions again.  For example,
what do we gain by calling it "poetry"?  I think that the term improves our
chances of hearing certain kinds of musical relationships among the sounds
of the words (as in Retallack's "courage to err and Guess that Mess for
read thru authors deranged/ chronologies foretasta alphabeta foreven were
earth's inner discontent/ assuaged").  And the term "poetry" seems like a
fit occasion for a perhaps vanishing mode of attentive reading, a sort of
hyper-alertness.  In his provocative and seminal book, _Word Perfect:
Literacy in the Computer Age_ (Pittsburgh University Press, 1992), Myron
Tuman (by way of George Steiner) describes the changing scene of reading:
   'To much of the planet,' writes George Steiner in the essay, 'The End of
Bookishness', (1988) 'what I have called the classical act of reading, the
private ownership of space, of silence, and of books themselves, never
represented a natural or native formula.'  For Steiner, changes in our use
of space and silence, brought on by changes in electronic technology, all
spell the end of a certain book culture, except perhaps as an object of
nostalgic yearning.  Gone, for example, is the 'circle of silence which
enables the reader to concentrate on the text'.  And for this Steiner is
not entirely sad, for he sees that we have already lost most of the
appreciation for the wondrous things contained in books.  Book culture, he
speculates, may exist in the future as it once existed in a more distant
past, as the expression of a coterie, in what he calls 'houses of reading--
a Hebrew phrase--in which those passionate to learn how to read well would
find the necessary guidance, silence, and complicity of disciplined
companionship.' (10-11)
     But the entire argument about the end of book culture, and its
replacement by a culture of digitalization and the VDT, often is staged
within a very limited conception of the reading processes possible within a
book culture.  Many of the most productive transgressive reading/writing
deeds within the book culture have occurred within the poetry texts of the
past one hundred (post-Mallarme) years.  And Retallack's own Errata 5uite,
in its celebration of "error" as a means to renewed, defamiliarized
expression and in its playfully intelligent collagist fusing of multiple
texts, creates a hyperspace within the domain of book culture.  What is so
remarkable about Retallack's book is that the presumably nostalgic gesture
of constructing a mode of writing out of contact with the bookish,
scholarly errata slip leads into a fractured, playful space of intelligent,
speculative thinking.  (I am also struck by the irony of my proof-reading
my own essay; Retallack's work makes me feel funny as I try to get her
cited errors "right.")
      Retallack's world of playful substitutions, of crazed phrasing and
conflicting semantic intersection, stands in opposition to an expressionist
(and distinctly Emersonian) dream of reading as a transcendental moment of
pure correspondence.  The latter--a romantic myth of reading--is best
represented in Wallace Stevens' poem "The House Was Quiet and the World Was
     The house was quiet and the world was calm.
     The reader became the book; and summer night
     Was like the conscious being of the book.
     The house was quiet and the world was calm.
     The words were spoken as if there was no book,
     Except that the reader leaned above the page,
     Wanted to lean, wanted much most to be
     The scholar to whom his book is true, to whom
     The summer night is like a perfection of thought.
     The house was quiet because it had to be.
     The quiet was part of the meaning, part of the mind:
     The access of perfection to the page.
     And the world was calm. The truth in a calm world,
     In which there is no other meaning, itself
     Is calm, itself is summer and night, itself
     Is the reader leaning late and reading there.
Stevens' dream is of a world (via reading) of pure correspondence, of such
correspondence (presumable of the reader's consciousness with the external
world) as constituting an ultimate truthfulness.  Retallack's
"truthfulness" or fidelity is to a world of much greater contingency--a
world of expressive error.  Or, in Charles Bernstein's terminology, a world
of dysraphism--the stitching together of mismatched parts (to produce a new
form of rhapsody). Thus, Retallack composes in what Stein calls the time
when the work still is taken to be ungainly and "ugly," a time in which
many contemporaries fail to realize that a (truly contemporary) work is
still beautiful even when and while it is jarring and odd.  In fact, more
generally, I would argue that our relationship to eccentric texts enacts a
more generalizeable political/social relationship to "otherness."
      But to return more directly to the specific excellence of Retallack's
work:  her poetry is one of intersecting musics, where the rhetoric and
phrasing of good old Robert Frost meets a critique of mainstream
contemporary poetry's twin dullnesses--predictable scenic writing and
predictably sincere expression:
  read ignomine domine flushed with sincerity's ergo sooner or later along
  the horizon o creaking smiles to go to sleep to rest is history read for an
  age not so much wrong as abstracht and preliminary the coastal scenic
  drive to scenic points with almost all left out to know to read the blind
  reed urgent moist and smooth fore rough & civil
As I read it, the scenic and the sincere profit immensely from erasure,
interruption, and discontinuity--else we read only a boring correctness, "o
creaking smiles to go to sleep."  And as I re-read Retallack's book, I
found a passage from Pascal's Pensees--a passage which I was forced to
memorize over twenty years ago--bubbling up into impertinent pertinence.
Pascal claims, "L'homme n'est qu'un roseau, le plus faible de la nature;
mais c'est un roseau pensant."  Retallack's passage, and her recurrent
juxtaposition of "read" and "reed," makes me think again of Pascal's
version of man as "a thinking reed."  Retallack's work too offers a
thoughtful read, verdant reed/read, as eyes close to the page we learn "to
know to read the blind reed urgent moist and smooth fore rough & civil."
      Retallack's _Errata 5uite_ provides us with a reading experience of
choices.  I begin to hear in my head these kinds of transformations:  "the
road not taken" becoming "he rode not talkin" becoming "the road knot
talking."  But my form of word-play differs from Retallack's.  _Errata 5uite_
celebrates the play of printed exchanges (whereas my passage, and much of
my own writing, indulges in puns and other oral/aural forms of
replacement). In Retallack's invigorating stew of playful and sustaining
print, we find
 to read read real denied being there at all that is to cause to follow these
 the choices that make us defacto human bacchae melanesia cafeteria ergot
 cert to be included a error for mirror interroregnum regulaterrrata p. 8
 forementioned bag-O-bugs the gardeners friends late evenings
 inadverdant soar remarks to others to mak ammendes
We see the Pleiades better by looking slightly away from them; in
Retallack's book we read (not exactly in Emily Dickinson's truth told
slant) but askew; as in the erotic play of Stein's tender buttons, we touch
around and slightly off.  And with each particular reading--"inadverdant
soar remarks."  We, greenly, make amends, pass amendments, read through
various emendations--"to follow these/ the choices."
     As the last fragment of Retallack's composition (from Wittgenstein's
_Remarks on Color_) asserts and/or asks:  "phenomena of seeing.--For whom
does it describe them? What ignorance can this description eliminate (W2)".
Hers is an infectious world of textual play.  It does not eliminate
ignorance; instead, she compounds error, and thus earns interest on the
original casual investment.  Divested of the anxiety of correctness, her
suite-music (read sweet music) tolls for the (read thee).  It is, then, a
phenomenon of seeing which, I imagine, we would do well to listen too.