Renee Gladman has been known for rigorously investigating the nature of the sentence: she conceives of it as a type of terrain, a psychogeographical space to move in and through. Prose Architectures (Wave Books, 2017) is the experimental poet and novelist’s first collection of drawings, done primarily in black ink, with occasional blocks or lines of color.
To encounter Gladman’s drawings is to encounter the phenomenon of description at its most fundamental level. The imaginative complexity of what her drawings describe is what gives them their thought-invoking power. Many of the pieces resemble not-quite-legible script, thus referencing urgent acts of writing, registering somewhere on the visual spectrum between image and language. As the book’s title indicates, architecture — especially the structure and function of urban space — is a primary concern for this work, and is of central interest to Gladman. In addition to handwriting, many of Gladman’s drawings suggest city landscapes — blocks, buildings, bridges, roads. But over the course of these 107 wildly diverse pages, conventions of visual description and representation are blown wide-open. Just as a descriptive writer may “draw” a scene using words, Gladman’s drawings seem to trace the contours of her thinking — notes without syntax, maps without scale, blueprints without measurement.
Gladman considers her drawing practice, in which she’s had no formal training, as importantly concurrent with her practice as a writer. Her stories bring readers into a world in which the linear and spatial limits of the urban environment are drastically altered; its transformation, in turn, serves as a metaphor for the mutability of familiar social and political structures. In Gladman’s trilogy of novels about the fictional nation-state of Ravika, for example, characters use an invented language called Ravic. The protagonists’ words have direct impact on physical spaces in Ravicka, as well as the events that transpire there. To write “I set my house on fire” in Ravicka is synonymous and simultaneous with one’s house burning down, just as writing “my house did not burn down” allows the same house to remain standing. This power negates the well-worn dichotomy between words and actions that haunts late capitalism. Gladman’s fictional system carries over into her drawings, where the act of mark-making — an act analagous to writing — results in a completely singular visual structure, an image that hovers somewhere between diagram and utterance.
In her introduction to Prose Architectures, Gladman writes that, as opposed to the language-centric writing process, “Drawing was going into time; it was pulling the process of thought apart, and what was most profound was that it left a record behind, a map: the drawing itself.”
The drawings do come across as an exciting hybrid of map and blueprint. “Prose Architecture #206,” for instance, appears to describe a multiple-story building, entered by way of a thick, dark-blue line drawn with colored pencil. Each section of the building is occupied by lines, angles, and interlocking loops. Lines slanting upward draw the eye to a dense blue shape atop the building; this shape could indicate sea or sky, or something else altogether, a piece of atmosphere from a world outside of our own. Gladman has characterized her novels as “social science fiction” as opposed to straightforward sci-fi or fantasy. The social element of her created worlds also emerges in places such as this drawn blue shape: like a flag or a national border, the shape hints at a socially constructed meaning, but ultimately resists any easily recognized significance.
Gladman refuses straightforward meaning-making in her descriptions. In his afterword to the book, scholar and poet Fred Moten likens Gladman’s drawings to Motown bassist James Jamerson’s bass line in the Jackson 5 song “Darling Dear.” The fluid lines in Gladman’s drawings — independent of any established meaning, as Jamerson’s brilliant bass lines were independent of the melodies they accompanied — exist, Moten writes, in opposition to “the enclosure of the antinomian and jurisgenerative.” I had to look up “jurisgenerative”: according to the contemporary political philosopher Seyla Benhabib, the jurisgenerative is the process by which a democratic people ascribes meaning to its laws. Like human thought itself, Gladman’s drawings refuse to follow any system of law, simply by means of their lively movement. What they describe is never static, and therefore cannot be contained within the bounds of rule.
In “Prose Architectures 132,” a group of fine lines, reminiscent of ruled paper, erupt into a tangle of marks. They could almost be typographic — like the curves and lines of cursive — but they also resemble musical notation, or some other semaphore that eludes easy reading. Looking at this drawing opens up an awareness of writing and drawing as acts of translation. To write out or draw one’s ideas involves moving between inner and outer rubrics of meaning, translating intimate acts of thought into something legible to the outside world. In urban spaces densely packed with people, this process of translation occurs at a hyperbolic pace: we speak, listen, record, and respond to each other, using the languages we’ve been trained to understand. The genius of Gladman’s drawings lies in their ability to capture the original process of thought accurately, without tying it to anything we already know.