Wednesday, December 29th, 2010
On the eve of the second decade of the twenty-first century we are confronted by the potential passing of the print book in for-profit publishing. While small presses specializing in books that require paper bodies may sit at some distance from the fray, challenges to the book bring the fact of being printed and bound into the center of form and content. At issue is not only why this particular book-body of such-and-such dimensions employing such-and-such font and such-and-such cover stock, etcetera—but why the body of the book at all. Presses such as Kyle Schlesinger’s Cuneiform have always addressed these matters, folding the how of the book into the what and the why. Haecceities, written by Michael Cross (himself the extraordinary chapbook publisher that is Atticus/Finch) and typeset and designed by Schlesinger, proposes no exception.
Haecceities measures an oversized 7 ½ inches by 11 inches. Occupying the left half of the canary-colored cover hulks a black-and-white sketch of a drape-covered marble monument (or a marble-drape covered monument). The title HAECCEITIES, printed in imposing caps, paces the right upper corner. “Haecceity,” a term coined by the medieval philosopher Duns Scotus, describes a thing’s essence, its “this-ness,” or individuality, singularity. It is a non-qualitative, non-relational property responsible for making something a particular thing rather than another. The concept has always been fraught: we are hard pressed to assert that this intangible thing exists, but we are harder pressed to say that it does not. What, philosophers ask, but haecceity can account for the fact that if the universe were to contain two qualitatively identical spheres, and only two qualitatively identical spheres, we would still insist on the spheres’ individual difference? Something—let’s call it haecceity—must maintain. The thought experiment deepens and convulses when applied to language, to the nature of words and to the particular this-ness of a text. Stein addresses something like this when she redresses the worn out rose: “When I said./ A rose is a rose is a rose/ And then later made that into a ring I made poetry and what did I do I caressed completely caressed and addressed a noun.” (Lectures in America)
Cross continually addresses the “this-ness” of reading by putting enormous pressure on the language of his poems. We are offered little framework beyond the physical body of the book, the epigraphs heading each section, and the work’s title. There is no narrative here and pronouns make scant appearance only in the later parts of the work. As such, we arrive inside of Cross’s language, and with no Virgil to map and navigate we must face the raw syllables of what is given. We are dropped into “wares laden partially with silhouette enmasse, the lime trees” and “beside its anomos the christ’s vulpine/ sonance, sea-foam, brume” and “how I speak for a posse/ is steam purls, and that’s my word.” You will need a dictionary to read this book. You will also need to listen, for here we have extreme rhythm, more compressed than sprung as it navigates Zukofsky’s upper level speech/lower level music more intensely than any book that I have read this year. You will find hints of ekphrasis (Cy Twombly is featured as proper name and via color: tangernines and whites) but as gesture rather than depiction. The book requires emersion and work, but rewards intense focus. Think of it as counterpose to the sensibility of frittering you have cultivated by spending too much time on facebook.
The book, closed, wants to be displayed on an oaken podium. The book, open, provides ivory-cream expanses for the poems, all of which are double-spaced and none of which take up the entire page. Poems range from 4 to 14 lines; line lengths are fairly regular within individual poems but vary from a (roughly) 6-word line to a 14-word line within the course of the book. This gives the poems a solid rectangularity. We can say of the width of the page that it accommodates the longest lines without seeming cramped, but that the typesetting is so immaculate that the poems never feel spare or slight upon their expanse. The poems appear etched, perfectly crafted panels of a monument inscription. Take, for example, the first poem from the first sequence, “The Pales.” In its entirety it reads:
alacrity at time and yet the hulkish ness
silt licks modality means better ness there
belied how marshal made hon
there catch and mannered tone
A sense of monument inscription is born out not only by the consistency of lower casing (a sort of inverse Roman capital) but also by the interpunct beginning the poem. Cross heads all poems in this particular section with such a mark and they are reminiscent of interword separation in Latin script. Additionally, the word “hon” works both as abbreviation of “honorable” and of “honey” (the endearment as in “hey hon, grab me a beer”—not the substance). The gesture of abbreviation is Classical: Latin inscriptions used abbreviations to save space and to pack more sense into a square of stone. Cross abbreviates to similar effect: collapsing high and low, honorable and honey, into the selfsame body of “hon.” And it is in moments such as this collapse that Cross addresses the conundrums folded into the concept of haecceity: if “hon” is “honorable” and “hon” is “honey” what makes this particular “hon” the abbreviation of one word rather than the other? The reader and his/her labor, the text seems to insist, echoed by one of the sequence’s 3 epigraphs: “It is as labor, and not as communication, that the subject in art comes into its own” (Adorno).
None of the individual poems have titles, but the book is parceled into 7 titled sections: “The Pales,” “Plinth Course,” “Cardinal,” “Cede,” “Sacred,” “Throne,” and “Pax.” The poems within each section work both autonomously and interconnectedly—carved into their fields, the poems feel discrete. But absent of capital letters and completely devoid of periods (and continuous in tone and mode) page moves into page as the eye, confronted with an inscribed monument, moves from marble panel to marble panel in order to complete the reading of an etched text.
This sense of the continuous-discrete is born out in the movement from word to word as well as the movement from page to page. And from word to word (carefully) is the way one must read this book in order to experience more than a surface rush. Take the first line of the first poem: “alacrity at time and yet the hulkish ness”. The words of the line accrete to an overall sense of contrasted qualities: briskness or liveliness (alacrity) at time, and yet a heavy, hulking quality. We have a contrast between the light/fluttery and the heavy. We have the admission of a contradiction: the experience under consideration here is both quick and weighted. As such the line culminates in a continuous sense. At the same time, however, the words insist that we take them as discrete entities and the syntax of the line disrupts the continuous sense I have just proposed. Consider the phrase “alacrity at time”. At time? The choice of “at” rather than the preposition that we expect, “in,” disrupts a continuous reading of the phrase. “Time” is not considered a location, though particular o’clocks often are as in: I will see you at 9 o’clock but you must be in time for me to do so.
The separation of “hulkish” from “ness” performs a similar action. We can go for a sense of continuity and elide the white space, reading this as a noun, “the hulkishness.” But, given the philosophical tradition of explaining haecceity as a “this-ness,” we ought to sit up and take notice when the author draws our attention to the morpheme. By inducing white space Cross puts pressure on the words as independent entities: “hulkish” (hulk: an old ship stripped of fittings and permanently moored; a clumsy or unweildly object or person) and “ness” (a headland or promontory; a suffix denoting a state or condition that allows one to form nouns, denoting this state, from adjectives). “Ness” as a promontory has purchase—a hulkish promontory—but “ness” as a noun-making suffix has even more resonance. Using white space to isolate the suffix draws our attention to the action of nouning, of making a solid state out of a quality, suggesting that haecceity is constituted of such movement.
While the book’s individual poems are all equally austere and subtle in the ways they manifest the continuous-discrete, the book also includes a large-scale typographical demonstration of this theme. The word H-A-E-C-C-E-I-T-I-E-S is broken into its individual letters and threads through the body of the book. Schlesinger has set the letters in large, 5 inch by 5 inch ornamental caps (Terry Wudenbachs’ Dürer Caps from IHOF) designed after Dürer’s 1525 “Of the Just Shaping of Letters,” a handbook outlining instruction for the geometrical construction of Roman capitals. The letter H begins the book (directly after the title page), and the very last page of the book is adorned with the word’s last letter, S. Each section is set off by a page devoted to the section’s title coupled with one of the stylized letters.
This threading amounts to more than fancy flourish, for it mirrors the continuous-discrete nature of the text: each of the capitals is beautiful architecture on its own, but also performs a function within the context of the whole wor(l)d. Additionally, Schlesinger’s selection of Wudenbachs’ Dürer Caps resonates with the questions of individuality embodied by the concept of haecceity. Wudenbachs’ caps are based on Dürer’s Roman capitals, which are, themselves, created by applying geometry to Classical letter forms. What individuates the letters as they appear in Cross’s book from Wudenbach’s digital forms? From Dürer’s careful geometric renderings? From a stone inscription?
As sculptors are said to chisel away aspects of stone to release the figure that has always resided within, Cross lays his text bare, proposing a continuous-discrete nature of language and of being. Through and through the body of this book, moments of this-ness exist as singular entities always moving into the flux of multiplicity. Such work has the energy of Delezue and Guattari’s interpretation of haecceity, articulated in A Thousand Plateaus, wherein “[c]limate, wind, season, hour are not of another nature than the things, animals, or people that populate them, follow them, sleep and awaken within them. This should be read without pause: the animal-stalks-at-five-o’clock. The becoming-evening, becoming-night of an animal. Blood nuptials. Five o’clock is this animal. This animal is this place.”
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