It's Go in Horizontal

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 2)

Leslie Scalapino’s It’s Go in Horizontal introduces readers to one of the most challenging and provocative American poets currently writing. This collection is part of the New California Poetry Series, which is edited by Robert Hass, Calvin Bedient, Brenda Hillman, and Forrest Gander and which has published such thought-provoking poets as Mark Levine, Fanny Howe, Harryette Mullen, and Ron Silliman. Scalapino gained recognition for her experimental approach to writing during the 1970’s in San Francisco, and over the length of her career, she has been linked to the Language poets, exhibiting her fascination in the different ways that language can be perceived.

Scalapino is a writer of many talents. While she has published several volumes of poetry since the mid-1970’s, she also has found the time and energy to write plays, fiction, and nonfiction. As a student, she studied French poetry, becoming enamored with the works of Charles Baudelaire and Arthur Rimbaud. During this period, Scalapino also came under the influence of the poet Philip Whalen, who had studied Eastern religions. One of the central points of her writing is the necessity to sabotage what she considers a very male-dominant language. She considers it her duty to alter language in every way possible in order to neutralize this dominance. As the poet sees it, language can be used to either reinforce the power base or subvert it. Scalapino wishes to tip the language scales, to allow all female and minority voices to be heard.

Her first poetry collection, O, and Other Poems, published in 1976, was dedicated to the great modernist writer Virginia Woolf. It was obvious at the outset of her literary career that Scalapino was a multidimensional poet, clearly driven by philosophical, political, and spiritual ideas. She was determined to juggle linguistic complexities with a visual perspective, so that in reading her poetry the reader should internalize Scalapino’s linguistic patterns and observe and inhale her words visually. The poet challenges both herself and the reader, and words and images tantalize those who encounter her on her own terms. Collaboration among various art forms plays a vital role in her approach to literary expression. On several occasions, the poet has combined her words with a visual artist in order to create a richer tapestry. Never less than provocative, Scalapino consistently has merged images with words. She has stated that it is imperative to express both a “social” as well as a “political” vision. The purpose of the literary journey is “to get to the inner relation of events,” and in so doing, the poet creates something fresh and unique. As Scalapino sees it, a sequence that may look similar to something from the past has essentially been pared down, made smaller and more particular.

During the 1970’s, Scalapino published four small-press volumes of poetry. In 1982, she published her first major volume, Considering How Exaggerated Music Is, through North Point Press. This included poems that were first published in her earlier small-press volumes. It’s Go in Horizontal opens with poems from the 1970’s. Portions of the long poem “hmmmm” introduce the reader to the world of Scalapino. First published in the 1976 volume The Woman Who Could Read the Minds of Dogs, it was chosen also to be included in her 1982 North Point Press collection. The full poem is made up of a series of disjointed narratives that dwell on surreal sexual matters. There is much fantasy, while the tone of the poem remains neutral. The provocative elements are presented in a matter-of-fact manner, as in: “I mean I see a man/ (in a crowd such as a theatre) as having the body of a seal in the way/ a man should, say, be in bed with someone, kissing and barking,/ which is the way a seal will bark and leap on his partly-fused hind limbs.” Throughout the series, the poet describes individuals as being other creatures and as having the attributes of these creatures. The bending of gender roles and of reality continues throughout the poem “Instead of an Animal.” Scalapino turns the act of suckling into a surreal expression of identity. In the poem, there are many examples of alternate realities. There are two women “suckling at the teats of the nursing mother; the/ infant being left to whine while the mother endured these females/ feeding off of her.” It even gets “[s]tranger when it is the male opening his...

(The entire section is 1828 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 2)

Publishers Weekly 255, no. 16 (April 21, 2008): 38.