BooksWeekend

Working at the Threshold of Prose

Renee Gladman investigates the moments when writing crosses over into another mode of expression.

When Renee Gladman’s Calamities was published in 2016, I was instantly captivated by the ways it recounts the author’s life as a writer. In it one finds short, condensed meditations — stripped of all but the most necessary context, each beginning with the phrase “I began the day…” — that mark the turning points in Gladman’s career. It is an account of her writing life as fascinating and significant as many of the works themselves. Some of the book’s most compelling passages concern the origins of her drawing practice, and the relationship between drawing, writing, and autobiography. In this way it illuminates how Gladman got from the works of her early career to her most recent book of drawings, Prose Architectures.

I began the day standing at a threshold of time […] In a moment, Angela Rawlings declared her love for Iceland. I could see her threshold between her feet. Rachel Levitsky had a threshold. Martha had just crossed hers. Stacy kept changing her name. We were all trying to end something and were finding something new in the process, though what we found didn’t seem to belong to us exclusively.

[…] if I was no longer going to write, as I had begun to worry that I wouldn’t, then I should at least write about not-writing. And was so struck by the idea that I rose from the tub, dripping, to jot it down, which I was now doing. I was writing down the idea “I no longer wish to write” by writing down that I was writing it down. I wanted a threshold to open that also would be like a question, something that asked me about my living in such a way that I could finally understand it.

I have wondered if the seed of Prose Architectures lies in what Gladman refers to throughout Calamities as “thresholds”: the moment when something (or someone) becomes something else, however intangibly or invisibly; the moment when writing crosses over into another mode of expression. Such an investigation has innumerous precedents: identifying the thresholds separating art and life was a defining preoccupation of 20th century avant-gardes. Closer to home perhaps are the writers Gladman grew-up with in her 20s, those now associated with the aftermath of Bay Area literary movements such as New Narrative and Language Writing. In both movements — especially New Narrative — one finds a rigorous interrogation of the “person” in relation to his or her milieu (i.e., friends, lovers, communities, and localities), in which generic boundaries are liberally disregarded and literariness seeks its discursive limits in amorous and social entanglement.

Significantly, in Gladman’s 2007 collection Newcomer Can’t Swim, writing and social experience are inextricable. In the first story, “Deflected Streets,” the narrator seeks a lover’s apartment without a map, by bus and, eventually, on foot, asking directions from those she encounters along the way. A loop forms between others’ perceptions of the narrator (Where might she be going? Whom might she be meeting?) and the information she receives. In a poem from the same collection, “Zone,” Gladman pays homage to the eponymous territory from Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1979 film, Stalker, a labyrinthine landscape determined by the emotional disposition of the ones who enter it: “Marked in this / way, today, magnified by all this / company, is the question of what / I’m feeling. The present condi- / tion of the body.” The Zone is a space constituted by thresholds, the passage across space and time through intensities — feelings.

In all of her work, Gladman, using sparing prose, struggles to capture the “person” or “self” as an unfolding determination of the social interactions and architectural spaces one moves through (“I am running away from the terri- / tory. I am in it.”). “Space is a practiced place,” Michel de Certeau tells us. So, it would seem, is time; one occurs among others, lives are lived coevally.

Much of Gladman’s work shows us that observing the crossing of thresholds may offer an account of one’s life within and without the space of writing —what I have called elsewhere “intense autobiographies.” In a passage from Calamities, Gladman relates how she arrived at what she calls “picture feelings”:

I began the day transcribing several of Gail Scott’s sentences onto the wall of my living room. For months I had been trying to say something about them, which when I went to say it became layered, thus impossible as an utterance. I had already argued somewhere that one could not express many different things at the same time in the English sentence, and so was not terribly surprised by my failure. I’d learned that to think in this language you had to be patient: you had to say one part, like drawing one side of a cube, then say the next part, like drawing another side, and keep on saying and drawing until eventually you’d made a complex observation and a picture-feeling.

Gladman imagines writing in English (would the experience be different in an iconographic or hieroglyphic language?) as a form of drawing, a sequence of lines. She recalls Gertrude Stein’s preoccupation with the “continuous present” of composition, and her frustration with repeatedly “beginning,” a quality she associated with the 19th Century Novel and which she attempted to transcend with her word portraits. Through the cube, a form that is both Platonic and ultra-Modern, Gladman begins to think about sentences and, eventually, paragraphs architecturally. “Were you building the present?”, she asks, closing this section of Calamities with the statement: “For a while, I hadn’t actually been writing but doing a transcription that fell in the deep space between drawing and landscape.” What links writing and drawing (in English) is their sequentiality — one word or line leads to another — as well as their essentially architectural character. Crossing over from writing to drawing, as Gladman does in Prose Architectures, therefore seems no crossing at all.

When one studies the drawings in Prose Architectures, one can often discern cityscapes, landscapes, and the cross-sections of structures. These pictorial resemblances — utopian in the imaginary dwellings and vistas they conjure —accompany the fact that the drawings constitute a kind of displacement of or supplement to Gladman’s written works. One might consider possible affinities between Gladman and Henri Michaux, as both writers concern themselves with translating the intensity of experiences into graphic expression –– in Michaux’s case, aided by the ingestion of mescaline. In Gladman’s, work, writing is an intense experience which, to quote Bhanu Kapil, produces “discharge,” a sloughed-off or residual pattern of energy. After the completion of her novel, Ana Patova Crosses a Bridge, she describes drawing as both a means of processing and forgetting the experience of having written her book:

I began the day wanting the language to describe a kind of writing that one could do that was not a physical act of producing marks on a page or computer screen but was a duration of thinking in which the thing one had completed, in my case Ana Patova Crosses a Bridge, which moved through my life so fast, so crisply that I couldn’t find in my body any feeling of having written it — I found the memory with no problem but nothing in my muscles or in my breath that could tell me something of what it was like to have written that book… I thought perhaps the reason I struggled to remember in my body this book that flashed through me was because immediately upon finishing it I went straight into drawing, though it was drawing that was rather like writing, and maybe there, in the drawings, was the record of this book I had made.

Gladman translates the energy of writing into a graphic form (“discharging”) —as though drawing shared the same substrate as writing (whether “thought,” “elan vital,” soma,” “flesh,” or “spirit”):

“Thus, drawing is writing,” was how I wanted the quote to go on. And to write was to think; to make lines was to draw; and lines were the essence of writing. I made a line, and though it couldn’t be read, the narrative of my line began instantly. I made a line; it couldn’t be read, but I feel the story in my body. It was as experimental as everything else. I made the line while talking in my head, which is what I did while I wrote. So I was writing, but it was drawing that had accumulated.

When I spend time with the drawings of Prose Architectures, I am struck by their gestural power — the fact that, in Gladman’s words, they allow her to write herself “out of writing by writing” — as well as their resemblance to semantics. Words are often discernible, though very rarely do they result in phrases or sentences. Looking more closely at Gladman’s lines, many of them are continuous, as if the artist were suspended in a trance. As Fred Moten has remarked in his afterword to the book, the works resemble meditative Tantra art. My favorite drawings are the ones that capture precisely the transition of words into drawing, the threshold point between text and image.

Ultimately, as I consider the drawings of Prose Architectures, I am fascinated by them as a record of the life of writing by “not-writing.” What happens when we who have lived our lives in words start to experience writing as a visual, acoustic, and architectural expression? If Calamities brilliantly describes a threshold whereupon words begin to pass into something else, Prose Architectures shows us what happens on the other side of this elusive boundary.

Prose Architectures (2017) is published by Wave Books and is available from Amazon and other online booksellers.

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