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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1805

It is rather typical for critics hyperbolically to describe books as being unlike any other. Leslie Scalapino’s poetic and prose meditation deserves this description if anything does. The first part of the book, “Autobiography,” is a narrative, if hardly expository, account of the first fifty years of Scalapino’s life. The...

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It is rather typical for critics hyperbolically to describe books as being unlike any other. Leslie Scalapino’s poetic and prose meditation deserves this description if anything does. The first part of the book, “Autobiography,” is a narrative, if hardly expository, account of the first fifty years of Scalapino’s life. The second, “Zither,” is an experimental poem which expands on hints dropped in the autobiography but cannot really be said to be derived from it.

There is a prefatory—but crucial—quote from Paul de Man on how the genre of autobiography often determines the content, rather than vice versa, as is traditionally assumed. Then “Autobiography” begins with letters from Scalapino to Norman Fischer, a poet who has been associated with Zen Buddhist monasteries and presses. Scalapino has been interested in Buddhism throughout her career. She is interested in the instability of language and the puzzling nature of the human apprehension of reality. These concepts have analogues in Zen thought, although there are Western philosophical sources on them as well.

Scalapino’s involvement with Eastern thought is not merely an intellectual one. Her father, Robert Scalapino, is an influential American political scientist who taught at the University of California at Berkeley and, as a specialist on East Asia, advised Republican and Democratic presidential administrations. Leslie Scalapino had firsthand exposure to Asia as a child. She saw Noh and Kabuki theater in Japan and watched the film Mother India in India. These early encounters with other cultures presage an interest in the otherness of experience throughout her work. This is not just an anthropological interest in otherness. It is an interest in the otherness of experience itself, even that experience which one usually takes to be nearest at hand. It would be a mistake, however, to see Scalapino’s early contact with Asian cultures as the sole source for these affinities. She couches her memories in letters to Fischer, rather than relating them as a straightforward developmental narrative. Scalapino’s later conscious study of Zen guides the contents of her memories as much as the memories foreshadow the interests.

A subtle sense of the vagaries of specific states of experiences pervades the early portions of “Autobiography.” Scalapino quotes the poet Lyn Hejinian: “Travel is sentimentality.” In other words, to think one can gain any knowledge by going some other place—knowledge of oneself or of that place—may be chimerical. Scalapino, while concurring that the illusion of travel can serve as a substitute for real experience, also asks if experience itself is necessarily real. What she calls “occurrence” may be something one can never know. Experience blocks as much as it reveals. Occurrence itself may be another avatar of impermanence. (This is similar to Scalapino’s insight that objectivity is allusion. In other words, there is no “zero point” of objectivity, no place in which objectivity simply exists. It always alludes, even in its objectivity, to another state of being.)

The apparent influence of Buddhist thought here is presented in the writer’s own register. It is revealed inductively, by watching one’s own actions closely. Scalapino recalls standing on the edge of a school baseball field, after the teacher had excused her from participating in the game because of her obvious physical pain. Scalapino suddenly felt as if she could see the mentalities of other people. This is not something preternatural but a worldly act of concentration.

At times, bracketed annotations describing what the author is doing in 1997, as the essay is being written, appear among the reminiscences. They provide a kind of palimpsest that acknowledges the composed and layered nature of memory. Scalapino also includes photographs of herself and her family, which allow the reader to see the faces of the people described in the text. More subtly, by tracing the changes in clothes, looks, and personal idiom through the decades, the images serve as a visual narrative channel to complement the verbal one that is the reader’s main focus. The photographs of Scalapino’s bright, lively visage also render the voice of the words on the page as less oracular and more individual.

A preoccupation of “Autobiography” is Scalapino’s relationships with men, including her father, her uncle, and her first two boyfriends at Reed College. Scalapino critically examines these men, fascinated by their occasional penchant for control. This control, less sadistic than epistemic, has more to do with knowledge than with power. “One is in reference only to a man,” Scalapino comments. Even when men do not particularly have any views, they manufacture the illusion of a coherent policy in order to determine, as a mode of cognitive surveillance, where the woman stands in relation to that policy. This is seen in a shocking way when an older man, a convinced Stalinist, seems totally undisturbed by the attempted extirpation of Buddhism in then-Soviet-dominated Mongolia, which Scalapino had lamented. This imperviousness is less a political stance than one of automatic gender assumptions. This mode of gender cognition, of women being rendered extrinsic to men even in their own perception, is a major preoccupation of the poem “Zither” (occasional previews of which are given in the essay).

Toward the end of the essay, Scalapino gives a sense of her poetics, particularly her interest in syntax and morphology. She tacitly likens her poetics to the scientific work of Tom White, her husband. White helped work out a method to determine the level of human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) in AIDS patients. His work was kept in mothballs by bureaucratic stupidity, only to prove worthwhile and be accepted years later. The similarity between Scalapino’s procedures and the scientific process of trial and error to see if a result is achieved and if it is of any utility is notable. As experimental poetry, Scalapino’s linguistic processes, like scientific experiments, do not necessarily yield discernible results immediately. They are aspects of a long-term process, from which meaning emerges comprehensively.

After acknowledging a comprehensive list of fellow practitioners of Language Poetry, Scalapino reveals that the essay was originally commissioned by a reference book publisher. Scalapino was supposed to write a conventional essay on her life, but instead she produced this wild mixture of poem and fact, reality and subjectivity. It is not surprising that the reference firm rejected it. Scalapino shows that she can shake up accepted givens in prose as well as in poetry.

“Zither” starts out by revealing that the action is based on William Shakespeare’s King Lear (pr. c. 1605-1606), as complemented by the Japanese director Akira Kurosawa’s version of the play in his 1985 film Ran. There is no direct connection in character, plot, or setting, nor is the mood cognate. Rather than dark and atavistic, “Zither” is probing and curious, interested in the “early” (a word used often) and not the sufficient ripeness of King Lear. In King Lear, women are forced to fend for themselves, yet they are dependent on male-monitored networks as civilization enters a new, savage phase. Scalapino likens the viewer to the character of Lear. Like Lear, the viewer may be disoriented, mad, or the viewer may, in assuming the position of centrality Lear tries to retain, even after abdication, be pretending to a place of transparent comprehension the poem disallows. A character named Mayfly struggles to come to maturity, while avoiding the normative definitions of what a woman should be. Scalapino uses the word “his” not to denote the male possessive but to denote external reality as such. External reality, if not literally named by men, is anchored by stereotypical “male” assumptions of existential solidity, symbolized by the evil “brownshirts” in the poem, who make the Mayfly their minion. The analogue to the content of “Autobiography” is just sufficiently removed to be unenforceable.

As in Scalapino’s earlier poetry, coherence is achieved through certain key words that are repeated, like motifs in a musical composition. “Base,” for instance, is used frequently. A base is something upon which things stand. It is a presupposition to experience, but it also claims its own identity and solidity. A base is the promise of what is constructed on it and yet has claims equal to that construct. The forbidding of these claims in a thought-world dominated by the achieved constructions render the idea of “base” provisional. They tear it, in other words, from the “brownshirt” vocabulary, though Scalapino is never this moralistic. Another key word is “fan.” Fans are separated from their source. They fan out. As a simple machine, they cool the air by disturbing it. As a motion, fanning extends and dissipates meaning. Fans increase action, yet the motion of fanning is a plural one. There is no mere accretion. This is reminiscent of the titular idea of a zither. Zithers, instruments with strings stretching over empty chambers, similarly interplay surface and echo.

The key words create an aura of a natural tableau that is yet constructed by language. There is a contest to wake into meaning, to claim the dawn of the morning of meaning for one’s own. There is also an awareness of how ramified and enmeshed these acts of perception must be with language. Words are, inherently, no more liberating than oppressive. They are no more exhilarating than banal. One cannot know, for example, trees directly. One can analyze their constituents. One can stack up their by-products. The tree, however, will always be behind a scrim of images, experiences, occurrences. It can never be there for once and for all. The glimmer of light through its leaves, however, is ineradicable.

Although much harder to read, “Zither” is a more complete experience than is “Autobiography.” Perhaps this is why it is listed first in the book’s title. Scalapino knows the constraining nature of autobiographical convention. She quotes de Man on the way “the autobiographical project itself may produce and determine the ‘life.’” In both prose and poem, Scalapino is alert to cognitive experience—the reading of books, the response to nature, the acknowledgment of a spiritual dimension. She looks to cognitive experience to take the focus off subjectivity. Given how tired the standard autobiographical approach can be, this is most welcome. There may be an unmet need not just to outflank autobiographical norms but also to recast them. For all its verbal unconventionality, Scalapino’s life trajectory is typical of that of her baby-boom generation. There is the cultured upbringing, the prestigious college, the political involvement which fragments after the Vietnam War, the interest in Eastern spiritualities. A more substantive incorporation of these historical issues might well have added to the book. Reservations such as these are the inevitable consequence of Scalapino’s venture in revealing the connections between her life and her poetics.Zither and Autobiography is a challenging and illuminating book.

Review Sources

Library Journal 128, no. 8 (May 15, 2003): 94.

Publishers Weekly 250, no. 29 (July 21, 2003): 189.

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