Craig Dworkin

Roof Books


Saturday, May 12th, 2012

Motes is a perfect little book of poetry. “Little” book, not by way of diminution, but as large praise, for Dworkin’s work here is of a piece, and each small piece is prism-pure in its exactitude. And exactitude, as is its way, is a matter both of shattering and of infinitesimal degrees. Proof of the former later; evidence of the latter is manifest and manifold. As an aside, I cannot say of this book as I like to say by way of parenthesis, “In other words,” for in Motes, there are no other words. No other words that matter, certainly, for the materiality of these words are the gears and works of words themselves. In this, Dworkin refutes the misconception that conceptual works need not be read. Some do not necessarily need to be read, but all—by which I mean all good—conceptual work should be read, and some quite closely. For its part, Motes must be read with both ends of the telescope. As in tragedy, the universal is compacted into the individual, and the beam in one’s own eye must be cast out before properly perceiving the mote in the eye of another. In other words, the conceptual gesture here is to shuck the grosser communicative pleasures of language so that purer delights may be discerned. Ergo, Motes = mots. All bons, in all senses, save the common.

Some of these precise pleasures seem bright children’s riddles:

for four days later

A lisping “Thursday,” the fourth day of the week, also known on college campuses (according to Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia, as “Thirsty Thursday,” the new start of the weekend), the for/four thus not only serving as a homophonic repetition but also creating a kind of collapsible mirror effect of “Thirsty = Thursday” = “Thirsty Thursday.”

Some bilangue puns, pulled like faces in a lady’s mirror:

winters itself

“Hiver” = “winter” in French, “s” being the elided reflexive pronoun se, elided as “h” is mute in “hiver.”

how sad for
these birds

Some small unpackings, as with a valise:

Godiva, go.

Die Walküre, die.

Some reconfigurings, like knick-knacks on a mantle:

I brought the bought wooden box from there.

Some returning détournements:

in marcel duchamps’ sad young man on a train I am that man

Some lyric assays like asides:

split little puppet pulpits tilted spilling dew

Some Rauschenberg-like combines:

l’oiseau chante
avec ses doights

unfledged crook-spur waterfowl yell
-owing in the shallows’ fallow laps

There is the temptation to keep retyping, and to refuse to decode, as each revisiting reveals more figures hidden in the carpet, more ways that language can and will play, given the slightest illumination. And decoding renders the readings more immanent than one either wants or suspects them to be. All right, one more:

four old
eating birds

So that caught = aught (8), = aught (0); aught = (from ought) possession, possessed of; to possess something and to be possessed of it is to consume that thing = eating. “To bird” = to catch birds; “to bird” birds would reduce them to aught. Why “four” ? Caught = quatre. Ergo, “why four?” = whyfore? I am still working on “old,” looking for an etymologic link with “aught,” though am fairly delighted to discover that “auld” = “auld lang syne” = New Year Eve, which was moved at one early Christian moment to the Feast of the Annunciation, a most significant angelic flight and attendant proclamation, as well as by my discerning a discerning connection between “alere” (to feed, nourish) and “old,” which puts a bright red ribbon on the whole string of things.

As noted, the desire to refuse to interpret comes from the fact that any interpretation feels reductive, not in the fine transmutative way, as in a sauce, but in the way of the pruned, the pre-digested. For her part, Marjorie Perloff has cited Motes as an example of the new conceptual lyric, rightly likening some of the poems to Tender Buttons and describing Dworkin as having a “Jamesian aesthetic.” (For her excellent essay, which I refuse to reduce: Which meets in a line from Stein: “And then there is using everything.” T’wit:


Wherein the figure of a cello can be considered as a collapsed ellipse, wherein a collapsed ellipse is an ellipsis wherein the “c” in cello would be followed by an apostrophe because the “h” in “hello” would be ellipsed…you really should sit for this.

And while Perloff is right to find the lyric impulse here, an impulse that is conservative in the conservationist sense, one that shows its dilations by way of its contractions, Motes reminds me moreover that Dworkin’s work reminds me of Cornell boxes: the same structural fidelity, the same sense of the visibly unpacked, which is related to the visual, but not exhausted by it. Just as many of these must be muttered in order to activate their mutations, thus proving Motes a Joycean verbiovocovisual trove as well as a series of objets retrouvè. The former facing, Janus-like, the Brazilian mid-century poesia concreta, and its shared concerns with Symbolist synaesthesia as well as its devotions to poetic minimalism, the latter the solidly conceptualist dedication to the machine in the ghost, or, in Dworkin’s own prognostic words: “So that the test of poetry were no longer whether it could have been done better (the question of the workshop), but whether it could conceivably have been done otherwise.” There is too in this work a literalism that insists on the dumb materiality of language itself, so words work as watchworks, not toward a greater sense of having said something, but toward the sense of saying itself. Such that the need to sound these poems in order to sense them also addresses the problem put by Perloff and Dworkin in their co-edited The Sound of Poetry/The Poetry of Sound, that the current critical attention to what a poem “says” may be, literally, at the cost of “saying” the poem, of the essential orality of poetry, and, possibly, language.

But if the work can be termed truly conceptual, and if conceptual, as I argue, allegorical, is there an allegorical register to be had? And this is where things take another turn, for Dworkin here appears to be working in a post-conceptual frame in which the object refuses all claims beyond its claim as an aestheticized object. For if conceptual writing tends to eschew the beauty of the literary object in favor of its role as extra-textual signifier, or, in Dworkin’s words, in conceptualism it is the idea of the piece that is paramount, post-conceptualism would change the game: it is only the beauty of language that matters. As matter. Not its signification—there’s no communication each to each, but rather the brute fact of communication itself. So the work registers a dumb materiality, as if the explication was machine-made, the product of John Searle’s Chinese room, in which Chinese ideograms are fed to a language processor and responses fashioned that, while grammatically correct and coded with linguistic sense, have no intentionality (and thus no real intelligibility, i.e., display no real “understanding”) because they do not come from any “one” who comprehends Chinese. So that to the extent language is, language does:


And surely this is enough. But let’s broaden our claim. In “The Laugh of the Medusa,” Cixious famously included Joyce as a prime example of écriture feminine, of transformative and transmigratory language, language freed from the bounds of linguistic—and thus conceptual—statis. In this spirit, I would like to nominate Craig Dworkin for inclusion in the Wesleyan University Press series of American Women Poets in the 21st Century (eds. Claudia Rankine & Lisa Sewell), for insofar as the works therein evidence a preoccupation with “interrogation of the boundaries between genres,” with readings that resist situational analysis, and with further resistance of “the binary of ‘the one,’ and ‘the other,'” Dworkin’s work does this and then some—and if there is to be an écriture féministe beyond that which is merely féminine, then surely it is this—

lesbians every
couple of year

Insofar as language works purely conceptually (or post-conceptually) in Motes, it cleaves sense and non-sense. (Non-sense as that which is legible, just not feasible.) If the mark of the feminist, as opposed to the feminine, is to serve as the mark, not of the Woman (which, as we all know, n’existe pas), but of the mark of the mark—of the moment in which sex becomes symbolic (when it is only symbolic of sex), then a feminist poetics must be a poetics that insists on the stupidity of symbolism attached to signification. The sign signs, or sings, or what have you, but says nothing, lacking understanding or intentionality beyond the fact of its function as sign. For it is this desire for something greater which is the beam to be cast out in order to see the real beauty of the mote.

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