Tuesday, December 23, 2003


There is a page in Jena Osman’s next book, An Essay in Asterisks, that reads, in its entirety


lif e s ent ence              hic              hic


The line, & I do read this as a line, is a part of a larger piece – I’m tempted to call it a poem – entitled “Memory Error Theater,” three terms that often apply in thinking of, or perhaps through, Osman’s difficult, delightful texts. An Essay in Asterisks is, first of all, a book of poems, yet in fact that concept “essay,” a term whose roots extend back to the Latin word for weighing, often feels as & perhaps even more apt as a descriptor of the unique process through Osman arrives at these verbal constructions that so often feel as if they have few antecedents in the history of literature. What then is the weight of an asterisk?


It’s a pertinent question here. Osman continually finds – in ways that often surprise me but do so with that hand-slapping-forehead sense of Oh Yes!, because something that was previously invisible now suddenly seems obvious – dimensions of meaning lurking in the least likely of places. One part of why & how Osman arrives at this place has I think to do with her process, which strikes me as being if not unlike every other poet, then shared with a very select few (most notably with her partner in the editing of Chain, Juliana Spahr): Osman is an investigative poet, indeed to a degree that I suspect Ed Sanders would find unimaginable.


Unimaginable is a word I think of a lot when contemplating Osman’s poetry. Indeed, rather like the optical illusion of, say, the Necker Cube or the old face/vase silhouette, Osman’s work often proceeds exactly through this process of making the unimaginable obvious again & again. If there is a risk in this project, generally speaking, it must lie in the surprise being gone on a repeated reading or else in the process itself becoming predictable. Yet reading Osman’s work, here or in earlier books such as The Character or Amblyopia, I don’t find her succumbing to such traps, precisely because – even those she actively eschews the lyrical – she writes with such precision, intelligence & wit (& in Essay, often demonstrating whimsy in visual as well as linguistic dimensions).


Consider for example that line quoted above, in which life sentence is disrupted by gaps followed at a distance by what might be either hiccups or a reiteration of the Latin term for here. Although it is the gaps in the first two words that call attention to themselves the gap that really is most completely absent is precisely that which would have made this free-floating phrase what it claims apparently to be, a sentence, & that’s the predicate. Instead what we get is immanence as hiccup, as savvy an exposition of Olson’s sense of proprioception as I’ve ever seen, immanence as Latin hiccup.


Osman is obsessed with predicates – it turns up again & again in these works, often in the form of an “=” or (if not less often, at least less palpably) is. Rule One of bad creative writing courses, of course, is to employ the active voice & dispense wherever possible with conjugates of to be. Yet, as any good surrealist knows, is is in fact the most powerful of all verbs precisely because it is the only one that can bring two worlds together simply on the grounds that it says so.


“Memory Error Theater,” beyond being a title, represents three forms of substitution or displacement between the subject (NP as a linguist would parse it, noun phrase) & whatever context or judgment might be made about it (the predicate). Not surprisingly, a major source for Osman are court records – a verdict is a major mode of predication – and political speeches (politicians are practiced at displacing content).


This isn’t the most coherent of notes – which is because I always feel, as here, as tho I need to read & reread Osman – I’m always coming across things I’ve missed before. For example, the opening passage or section of “Memory Error Theater” is a boxed grid of 21 common editing marks. The relationship this has to “Error” is immediately apparent &, to my mind at least, to “Memory” as well (albeit secondarily). But any relationship to “Theater” immediately strikes me as more strained. Or at least it does until I realize (1) that each of the seven columns has a header that includes not just a number, but also (2) major bodies from the solar system, in this order from left to right: Moon, Mercury, Venus, Sun, Mars, Jupiter & Saturn. The three marks under Moon, for example, are those for delete, insert a space & query to author. The first thing that occurs to me once I notice the planets etc. is that it’s a scheme that proceeds from the center of the universe outward Except that it’s not. The Moon is where one would today expect to find the Sun, while that occurs at the point where one would expect to find (an absent) Earth. It’s as if one were looking at the solar system without a sense of one’s own presence in the mix, while putting the moon rather than the sun at the center.


Secondly, this grid doesn’t just contain editorial marks – presented graphically the way one would expect to find them in Words into Type or the Associated Press Style Guide or The Chicago Manual of Style. Each box, in addition to its mark and its explanation in a world or two of English (e.g. stet – let it stand) also contains an additional bit – and bit is the right word, quantitatively – of language (thus stet – let it stand, or the theater). The process of rereading Osman thus is, for me at least, as valuable as that of reading her works for the first time – it’s as though I were peeling some sort of metaphysical onion, layer on layer keep showing up, making me realize that these visually-centered works – Osman is very much a writer of the mind & eye – skip past me on first contact. I have to keep coming back, and each time I do I’m appalled or amazed (depending on my mood) at how much more there is than there seemed to be just a few minutes prior. Yet at the same time, Osman is one of the most economical of poets – something else she shares with the Objectivists – there is never any waste, even as I find myself having to think further as to why & how stet = “the theater.” Or why eight of these 21 boxes offer, as their excess of language or the day log. I think I know the answer to the first of these questions (or at least I have a theory): stet, which literally does mean let it stand in Latin, is derived from the verb stare, a two-syllable word in Latin that means to stand. But here Osman has heard (or at least seen) the pun implicit betwixt Latin stare & English stare. It’s a small detail, but I think it gives a good sense of what I take to be the vertical richness of this text, and of Osman’s work in general.


I’ve promised Jena that I would try to come up with a blurb for this new book by year’s end. It will be published by one of my own favorite presses, Roof, and I’m definitely predisposed to rave at the idea of this book. But what I really want to do is to read it & read it & read it until I really grok it as we used to say in the Sixties. So heads up – you may be hearing about An Essay in Asterisks for another day or two.

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