Saturday, June 16, 2007

Descriptive tone

One of the things that has interested me most about Juliana Spahr's writing since I was first introduced to it is the particular and peculiar tone she strikes. It's not a poetic tone, per se — or, to be more precise, it's not a "poetic" tone, one that gestures towards poetry as it is typically or traditionally imagined.

Though I could locate a position for it with respect to "language-centered" writing, I'm not quite sure how to characterize its own peculiarities, the particular approach Spahr takes — through this tone, or with it — to the world. We could call it "descriptive," did the term not suggest an especially florid and lurid use of modifier and metaphor. So I'm tempted to propose "analytic-descriptive" or some such.

What characterizes — and is at stake in — this tone is Spahr's resistance to specificity. Much is shared here with Laurie Anderson's account of walking, as I described it here. Anderson facilitates an examination of walking that renders it foreign, that underscores its relationships to falling and catching. Furthermore, those terms extend themselves — as metaphoric and allegorical language — into dimensions (faith, defeat, etc.) that aren't nominally or ostensibly relevant to the activity of walking as we conventionally and habitually practice it.

Spahr's account of balance, from Fuck You - Aloha - I Love You, works similarly:
It is balance that tells us to keep
our head up and the hips and
knees well flexed.

It is balance that keeps the elbows
bent slightly and the fingers
pointing forward.

In balance, one tries to realize if
the weight is too far forward and
if so one presses downward with
the finger tips and raises the head.
Or if one realizes that the weight
is too far backward then one
presses downward with the heels
of the hands and lowers the head.

Over the course of Spahr's poem, balance becomes a way of thinking the complexity of social interactions, to participate in culture, a "group enterprise" that "requires the cooperation and teamwork of we who are in formations," and in which "innumerable combinations may be developed."

In both Anderson's and Spahr's writing, our focus is shifted away from our habitual attention to specifics, and over to the underlying structures that govern the interactions and relationships described. If the effect is a defamiliarization, it allows for a renewal of perspective, such that the quotidean is made redolent with meanings. This tone — flatly descriptive, "cool," the language we might find in technical writing, characterized in part by the neutral "one" — makes it so. So that the world is found to be haunted by diverse causes and effects, by unseen forces. And that action might be drawn into relation, with world and others.

Another way to think this — and it may demand a revision of the term I've proposed — is to return to Stein. Though the term "description" recurs throughout her work, I'm thinking here of Stein's account, in An Acquaintance With Description, of "studying in description." We might twist Stein's use of the term "studying" away from its painterly sense, pointing it instead towards the notions of research, experimentation, or analysis. Instead — and because neither Anderson's account of walking nor Spahr's writing in general emphasize the visual — we might revise Stein's practice of "look[ing] ... really look[ing]," such that its attention is re-focused on "being ... really being."


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