The Invention of Glass

Emmanuel Hocquard (Translated by Cole Swensen and Rod Smith)

Canarium Books

2012

Wednesday, September 4th, 2013

The Invention of Glass. To begin with titles and what does a title propose:

Thanks to volcanoes, lightning, and meteorites, glass has always existed in nature, but like many of our oldest technologies that we daily take for granted, glass-as-human-invention has a mysterious and un-namable source. Our oldest known glass objects are glass beads dating from the Middle Bronze Age, but who fashioned them and why and if not by accident upon what natural or established model remains a mystery. Glass is also mysterious for its many forms, which we value for contradictory traits. In glass we have a material that can be transparent, such as a windshield, valued for its visual near-absence, its ability not to stand, visually, in the way of the world. We also have a material that can be quite opaque, such as a stained glass widow, valued for its visual presence.

“Transparency” and “opacity” also, of course, describe different qualities of language, a resonance particularly significant for this book whose original French title, L’Invention du verre, yields a homophone with vers, that is to say, with verse. “Transparent” language lends itself to window metaphors illustrating the kind of writing that seeks to make language as unobtrusive as possible, leaving the reader with the impression of a vivid external landscape, a clearly communicated idea, a definable interior state, etcetera. “Opacity,” on the other hand, foregrounds the material aspect of language, keeping readers on the level of syllable, typography, syntax, and word—the writing, itself, as experience rather than the writing as window onto experience beyond the page.

It is easy enough to fall into a rehearsal of a transparent / opaque dichotomy that transposes these terms onto genre (prose / poetry), discipline (philosophy / poetry), philosophy (analytical / continental) or aesthetics (conventional poetry / experimental poetry). But this is not what The Invention of Glass wants, for the book embraces the tensions between transparency and opacity as necessary elements of language—entailments of the always contextual, always multiple, and always unfinished properties of language that make of it an inventive material:

When the two elements that compose glass fuse, they’re freed from their natural limits which lets them disappear.

and

A taste for glass does not explain the appeal of experiments in language.

and

Poetry does not speak of the world.

and

If it does what it says poetry is in all cases a matter of physics.

and

There is an abyss.

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Within and against the opacities of the abyss structure and naming order and clarify. Transparent aspects of The Invention of Glass are due in large part to Hocquard’s elegant and simple structure. The book has three distinct sections with straightforward names: “Poem,” “Story,” “Notes.” It is mainly in virtue of the structural, formal, and tonal similarities within each section that the book has transparency and can be held onto intellectually.

The first third of the book, “Poem,” is a series of 20 numbered sections and, although each section creates the feeling of an autonomous poem, the series works as a continuous whole. Uniform in form and style, each section is headed by a number (1-20), begins with an italicized phrase, and unfolds in a single stanza of 48 lines long. Each line is roughly between 5 and 10 syllables long; the poem’s sentences are grammatical and relatively short (except for section 11, which is one long sentence) and enjamb, creating a fairly tight path down the page. The tone throughout is meditative, asking questions and pursuing ideas. But this surface is not smooth and rhetorical: Hocquard leaps from subject to subject without supplying overt connections. Particular details balance abstract concepts to address such themes as coming into being, the textures of the material world, and the nature of naming. These themes rise to the surface and come back across the series. Section 7, which of all of the sections most overtly treats of the theme of glass, serves as an example of the way “Poem” feels. It begins like so:

There is glass. The respite
sheds light on the passage.
A broken branch
across the path.
How to see this pink
cloth? It’s right. Prisoner
of his perspective
the commander missed
everything. Ancient walls
become paths.
Affirming and negating
can be equally energizing.
Why these forms?

and traverses 23 more lines while passing through subjects such as direction, parentheses, and color and ends with the following 12 lines:

There is means something
rather than nothing: the bisons’
trail still visible
beneath Broadway. Here is
the sea. Through the extravagant
machinery of voices,
sibilants, no border
passes. Becoming
is not a discipline
and no one has ever tried
to find the name
of the inventor of glass.

Qualities that create the transparency/clarity of “Poem” include the solidity of the sentence as syntactical unit; a particularity of diction; repeated formal elements, which go far to—if not teach us how to read the sections—habituate us to the way that they unfold. In many respects the poems create the feeling of what it might be like to be inside Emmanuel Hocquard’s head—not being, ourselves, Hocquard, but rather listening as he pulls through thought. Here we might employ the image of double-paned glass and think of the poem as a window of language that gives out onto the language-window that this particular self uses to speak to himself about the world.

Although consistent formal features afford the text a measure of transparency, “Poem” is, at the same time, an opaque text that resists summary and overt aboutness. Swerves of consciousness and allusions to references that readers do not have access to create an experience of opacity. Take, for example, the lines: “The respite/ sheds light on the passage.” The respite from what, we might ask. What passage? Literal passage? Textual passage? The passage of time? And before we can surmise an answer we move on to the image of “A broken branch/ across the path.” Is the path the passage? Is the broken branch the respite? Again, before there is an answer, we move on. As such, the movement of “Poem” is largely opaque, creating a rich, mysterious experience. As I read I am not sure where I am going, but I do not feel abandoned by the author: on a felt level I have the sensation of being carried by “Poem” from the movement’s beginning to its end.

__

The book’s second section, “Story,” consists of 20 prose entries that correspond to the series of 20 poems in “Poem.” These prose entries range from quotations from other sources (indicated by quotation marks and superscript numbers) to what feel like journal entries and written observations about ideas, texts, and experiences. Each of “Story’s” entries clearly connects to its counterpart in “Poem” by three formal devices: ordering, titling, and page numbers. For example, we know immediately that the seventh prose entry in “Story” corresponds to the seventh section of “Poem” (cited above) because—along with being seventh—it is titled with the same italicized phrase that begins the seventh section, (There is glass), and also cites page numbers (P. 33 and P. 36) which correspond to the pages of the seventh section of “Poem,” which spans from page 33 to page 36. The entry reads, in its entirety, like so:

P. 33. “They say that nitrate merchants, camping along the Belus, a Phoenician river, used some blocks of their merchandise to support their cooking posts and that the action of the fire transformed this nitrate, mixed with the sand of the riverbank, into a transparent lava that was instantly rendered solid by contact with the air.” 8

P. 36. “Roads in the United States often follow old Indian paths, but this is also true of certain city streets. Broadway is the best known example.” 5

We can make many connections between these textual fragments and the text of “Poem.” Most obviously, we have the note on Indian paths and Broadway, which corresponds to the lines:

There is means something
rather than nothing: the bisons’
trail still visible
beneath Broadway.

After reading the rather concrete and crystal clear sentence about Bison and Broadway in “Story,” the rather airy lineated musing in “Poem,” solidifies: the mysterious “bisons’ trail” becomes an “old Indian path” and I experience an “ah ha” moment. But the revelation goes both ways: when I read “Story’s” note I through “Poem’s” assertion that “There is means something rather than nothing” what is rather plain fact begins to vibrate with significance. While I don’t know that I want to say that the fragments of “Story” explain “Poem,” (or that “Poem” invests “Story” with meaning), the connections and layering that happens when we read back and forth across sections creates a deeper experience of the text: an experience that is on the one hand more opaque (more layers), but on the other hand, an experience that brings the language into focus and clarifies via contrast and difference.

The particular entry that I’ve cited above happens to be entirely from source texts, which is not true of the entirety of “Story.” Hocquard makes the fact of “source” clear by conventional use of quotation marks and the superscript numbers that we have learned indicate notes. If we flip to the third section of the book, “Notes,” we find the corresponding citations. 8 corresponds to the entry “8. Henri Havard. La Verrerie (The Glass Factory), Librairie Charles Delagrave, 1897.” and entry 5 corresponds to “5. Giles A. Tiberghien. Notes sur la nature, la cabane et quelques autres choses (Notes on Nature, Cabins, and Several Other Things), École supérieure des arts décoratifs de Strasbourg, 2000.”

While the content of “Story’s” prose entries varies from entry to entry, “Story’s” format remains consistent. This consistency shows us how to read “Story”—from beginning to end, as one would read a “story,” but also, more rewardingly, along with its corresponding section from “Poem.” It also provides a kind of transparency of connection and poetic process: we can trace movement back and forth between “Story” and “Poem.” Sometimes “Story” seems to provide a source text (the story behind the poem), sometimes an interpretation (the story one might make up about the poem’s sense), and sometimes a more-or-less mysterious association with the material of “Poem.”

The third section of the book, “Notes,” only runs from pages 115-117. Although “Notes” consists only of citations corresponding to the quoted material in “Story” (and to the book’s two epigraphs, taken from Keith and Rosmarie Waldrop), Hocquard gives it equal status with the rest of the book by using the same bold, sans-serif titling as “Poems” and “Story” and by listing it in the Table of Contents just as they are. Hocquard’s inclusion of notes provides a generous transparency of source. And his elevation of notes to the same status as “Poem” and “Story” implies a map for how a poem is made with and through a writer’s engagement with novels, poetry, criticism, history and philosophy. Here again we have transparency and opacity: “Notes” renders the process transparent, but, it is essential to note, the mystery that brings a poem into being out of a source text remains an opacity. Tracing section 7 from “Poem” to “Story” to “Notes” and back again provides the gesture or outline of composition, and provides material for creative reading, but does not answer the more intense questions of creative mystery.

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While the formal structures of The Invention of Glass brilliantly create a transparent window onto language’s capacity to be ordered and made into poems, the book’s genius resides in the way in which Hocquard does not deny language’s opacities. The opaque quality of language is most beautiful in “Poem,” with its mysteries and leaps, but I want to end by mentioning two moments in the last two thirds of the book that comment on language’s innate opacity.

1. In “The letters are,” the second to last section of “Story,” Hocquard writes about his use both of the ampersand and the word “and,” highlighting the multiplicity embedded in even one of the simplest words, even in and and &. Given such systemic multiplicity, language is deeply rooted in opacity:

p. 82. Here, the ampersand (&) is not a replacement for and. Rather, it denotes a tautological aim. Which is to say that it tends to mark, between two terms, a relationship (but can we still speak of relationship?) of identity: “Table & hands” (p. 10), “Person & path” (p. 86), or indifferentiation, closer to or. You could also say an augmentation. “The painting shows Alvina’s photographed arm augmented by a shoulder as if it’s a birth…” (p. 55) is less the description of an image than the development of a formula such as “Alvina’s arm & shoulder” while the other formula “Alvina’s arm and shoulder” denotes an addition.

2. The last endnote of the book provides citation for a phrase that comes much earlier in the book—a phrase that separates the book’s first two sections. Between “Poem” and “Story” the following phrase appears, all alone and italicized in the center of a page:

(The rest is wanting) 24

“Notes” provides the following citation:

24. (Reliqua desiderantur), the final proposition of Spinoza’s On the Improvement of Understanding. 1662.

On the Improvement of Understanding was Spinoza’s last text—he died before he finished it. And this, the last proposition of Spinoza’s last text—”The rest is wanting”—was not written by Spinoza, but by an editor. Here we have a different kind of opacity: an opacity of source, authorship, and context. An opacity of the inevitable incompletion of a text.

These moments are significant because they remind us that opacity isn’t something that a poet—at least a good poet—does to language. It is part of what language is as it appears in the world—always contextual and, so, always over-layered with multiple textures and never, finally, finished. Hocquard’s work is a testament to possibility: to invention not in spite of, or in denial of, these excesses, but in virtue of them.

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