The Portrait of the Language Poet as Autobiographer:

The Case of Ron Silliman

Marjorie Perloff

published in Qarry West, 34: Ron Silliman Issue, ed. Tom Vogler (1998): 167-81.


One of the cardinal principles–perhaps the cardinal principle–of Language poetics has been the dismissal of voice as the foundational principle of lyric poetry. In the preface (“Language, Realism, Poetry”) to his anthology In The American Tree, Ron Silliman famously declared that Robert Grenier’s “I HATE SPEECH” manifesto, published in the first issue of the San Francisco journal This (1971), “announced a breach–and a new moment in American writing”–a rejection of “simple ego psychology in which the poetic text represents not a person, but a persona, the human as unified object. And the reader likewise.” [1] From the other coast, Charles Bernstein similarly denounced voice as the “privileged structure in the organization and interpretation of poems.” [2] And in his early essay “Stray Straws and Straw Men,” Silliman is Bernstein’s Exhibit A for a constructivist poetry, a poetry that undermines the “natural look,” with its “personal subject matter & a flowing syntax.” Whereas “Official Verse Culture” sanctifies authenticity, artlessness, spontaneity, and “personal expressiveness,” “Ron Silliman,” says Bernstein, “has consistently written a poetry of visible borders: a poetry of shape”:

His works are composed very explicitly under various conditions, presenting a variety of possible words, possible language formations. Such poetry emphasizes its medium as being constructed, rule governed, everywhere circumscribed by grammar & syntax, chosen vocabulary, designed, manipulated, picked, programmed, organized, & so an artifice, artifact–monadic, solipsistic, homemade, manufactured, mechanized, formulaic, wilful. (CD 40-41)

The reference, so far as Silliman is concerned (for Bernstein is of course also thinking of his own work), is to Silliman’s use, in the long poems of the seventies, of rules and procedures, whether the Fibonacci series used to produce the paragraphs of Tjanting, or the format of 223 numbered paragraphs based on Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations in The Chinese Notebook. Whatever the specific device used, so Silliman suggests in his “Disappearance of the Word, Appearance of the World,” the construction of poetic discourse takes its cue from Marx’s famous statement, “It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness.” [3]

Early commentators on Language poetry, myself included, thus took for granted that the poetic community represented by The American Tree was united by its antagonism to lyric voice, coherent self, individual consciousness, or transcendental ego. But now that the movement is twenty years old and inevitably showing signs of strain, now that the differences between individual “Language poets” are beginning to seem more significant than their similarities, it might be well to look at the “voice” conundrum again. Statements of poetics, after all, can never be taken at face value. Is the language of the rustic, as Wordsworth famously claimed, really closer than that of the city dweller “to the beautiful and permanent forms of nature”? Is poetry, as Eliot declared, “not the expression of emotions, but an escape from emotions,” and is Prufrock thus a “persona,” unrelated to his creator? What about Pound’s axiom “Direct treatment of the thing” or Williams’s notorious “No ideas but in things!”? Are these universal prescriptions? And how accurately do they characterize Pound’s and William’s own lyrics?

Both Bernstein and Silliman have recently contributed to the Gale Research Contemporary Authors Autobiography Series. Bernstein’s piece, which I shall discuss elsewhere, takes the form of an autobiographical interview conducted by Loss Pequeño Glazier; Silliman’s Under Albany is a more traditional first-person narrative, “topic” sentences being used as titles or captions for blocks of narrative, often out of chronological order. [4] Read in the context of his poems, Silliman’s autobiography brings before us a very particular speaking voice–a voice not to be mistaken for Bernstein’s or, for that matter, for any of his fellow poets in The American Tree. Indeed, one wonders how or why the writers in question should continue to be identified as tout court “Language poets” and hence linked as being somehow the same. Perhaps a discussion of Under Albany will finally put to rest the group label, together with its specter of “voicelessness.”

Or so I hope, given the continuing dismissal and demonization of language poetry. At Buffalo, for example, the young poets associated with the journal Apex of the M have tried to separate themselves from an entity known as Language poetry–an irony given the continuing refusal of mainstream presses to bring out the work of the poets in question and of foundations like the Guggenheim or MacArthur to give them fellowships. “The moment of communal coherence,” as Silliman explains in his interview with Tom Vogler and Tom Marshall (elsewhere in this journal), was “extremely fragile and fleeting. . . . For langpo, that moment existed roughly from some time around 1970 until, at the latest 1981 or maybe ‘82.” The critique by younger–and basically like-minded poets (in Buffalo, in the pages of Ed Foster’s Talisman, or on Rick Caddel’s British Poets List on the Web) of the language poets’ power and hegemony, says Silliman, thus “feels like the literary equivalent of the old split between the house slave and the field slave–the real issue should be the elimination of slavery.” Touché. Just yesterday, I received a request to write an essay on some aspect of new American poetry for the English journal Poetry Review, edited by Peter Forbes. The choice of topic, wrote Forbes, was mine, “but we don’t want an essay on Language poetry because we already had one in the last issue.” A single essay on this vexed topic is evidently enough!

Suppose, then, we put the well-known Language manifestos and statements of poetics on the backburner and look at the text of Under Albany, written just this past year for the Gale Research series mentioned above. The Albany of the title is the small Bay Area town north of Berkeley where Silliman grew up but it is also the title of an earlier prose piece included in ABC (Berkeley: Tuumba Press, 1983). “Under” Albany thus points to getting under and inside of the parataxis of Albany, with its characteristically non-sequential, juxtapositional “New Sentences,” as well as getting out from under the stifling life of the poet’s childhood Albany, CA.

Albany, carefully plotted, consists of a hundred sentences of varying length. In the first section of Under Albany we learn that “The ‘average sentence in Albany is 6.94 words long.” [5] Since these hundred sentences will be so important to the later text, I shall cite Albany in its entirety here:

If the function of writing is to “express the world.” My father withheld child support, forcing my mother to live with her parents, my brother and I to be raised together in a small room. Grandfather called them niggers. I can’t afford an automobile. Far across the calm bay stood a complex of long yellow buildings, a prison. A line is the distance between. They circled the seafood restaurant, singing “We shall not be moved.” My turn to cook. It was hard to adjust my sleeping to those hours when the sun was up. The event was nothing like their report of it. How concerned was I over her failure to have orgasms? Mondale’s speech was drowned by jeers. Ye wretched. She introduces herself as a rape survivor. Yet his best friend was Hispanic. I decided not to escape to Canada. Revenue enhancement. Competition and spectacle, kinds of drugs. If it demonstrates form some people won’t read it. Television unifies conversation. Died in action. If a man is a player, he will have no job. Becoming prepared to live with less space. Live ammunition. Secondary boycott. My crime is parole violation. Now that the piecards have control. Rubin feared McClure would read Ghost Tantras at the teach-in. This form is the study group. The sparts are impeccable, though filled with deceit. A benefit reading. He seduced me. AFT, local 1352. Enslavement is permitted as punishment for crime. Her husband broke both of her eardrums. I used my grant to fix my teeth. They speak in Farsi at the corner store. YPSL. The national question. I look forward to old age with some excitement. 42 years for Fibreboard Products. Food is a weapon. Yet the sight of people making love is deeply moving. Music is essential. The cops wear shields that serve as masks. Her lungs heavy with asbestos. Two weeks too old to collect orphan’s benefits. A woman on the train asks Angela Davis for an autograph. You get read your Miranda. As if a correct line would somehow solve the future. They murdered his parents just to make the point. It’s not easy if your audience doesn’t identify as readers. Mastectomies are done by men. Our pets live at whim. Net income is down 13%. Those distant sirens down in the valley signal great hinges in te lives of strangers. A phone tree. The landlord’s control of terror is implicit. Not just a party but a culture. Copayment. He held the Magnum with both hands and ordered me to stop. The garden is a luxury (a civilization of snail and spider). They call their clubs batons. They call their committees clubs. Her friendships with women are different. Talking so much is oppressive. Outplacement. A shadowy locked facility using drugs and double-celling (a rest home). That was the Sunday Henry’s father murdered his wife on the front porch. If it demonstrates form they can’t read it. If it demonstrates mercy they have something worse in mind. Twice, carelessness has led to abortion. To own a basement. Nor is the sky any less constructed. The design of a department store is intended to leave you fragmented, off-balance. A lit drop. They photograph Habermas to hide the hairlip. The verb to be admits the assertion. The body is a prison, a garden. In kind. Client populations (cross the tundra). Off the books. The whole neighborhood is empty in the daytime. Children form lines at the end of each recess. Eminent domain. Rotating chair. The history of Poland is 90 seconds. Flaming pintos. There is no such place as the economy, the self. That bird demonstrates the sky. Our home, we were told, had been broken, but who were these people we lived with? Clubbed in the stomach, she miscarried. There were bayonets on campus, cows in India, people shoplifting books. I just want to make it to lunch time. Uncritical of nationalist movements in the Third World. Letting the dishes sit for a week. Macho culture of convicts. With a shotgun and “in defense” the officer shot him in the face. Here, for a moment, we are joined. The want-ads lie strewn on the table. (ABC, unpaginated)

Here the collocation of disparate sentence units (A never follows B) is vintage Silliman. As in Ketjak and Tjanting, both written a few years earlier, the poet avoids conventional “expressivity” by avoiding a consistent “I,” indeed, by not specifying who is the subject of the sentences in question. Who, for example, says “I just want to make it to lunchtime”? Or “Talking so much is oppressive”? Whose “carelessness has led to abortion”? Whose “best friend was Hispanic”? And so on.

At the same time–and this has always been a Silliman trademark–indeterminacy of agent and referent does not preclude a razor-sharp realism of description. Despite repeated time and space shifts, the world of Albany, CA. is wholly recognizable. It is, to begin with, not the Bay Area of the affluent– the Marin County suburbanites, Russian Hill aesthetes, or Berkeley middle-class go-getters. The working-class motif is immediately established with the reference to “My father withheld child support, forcing my mother to live with her parents, my brother and I to be raised together in a small room.” And this is the white working class: “Grandfather called them niggers.” Later, when the narrator is living in a part of San Francisco where, on the contrary, many ethnicities are represented, we read that “They speak in Farsi at the corner store.” The poet is a political activist: he participates in demonstrations and teach-ins, is briefly jailed, avoids the draft, and so on. There are many explanations of everyday things the activist must deal with: “The cops wear shields that serve as masks.” But the paragraph is also filled with references to sex and love, couplings and uncouplings, rape, miscarriage, and abortion. And finally, there is the motif of poetry: “If it demonstrates form they can’t read it.” And readings: “It’s not easy if your audience doesn’t identify as readers.” Writing poetry is always a subtext but one makes one’s living elsewhere: “The want-ads,” as the last sentence reminds us, “lie strewn on the table.”

“Silliman’s work,” observes Jed Rasula, “may be read as a grand refusal of the chronic strategies of authorial domination.” [6] The allusion is, again, to the “Language” credo: the avoidance of all “lyrical interference of the ego,” the refusal to create a consistent or coherent “self,” whose construction of events as of verbal forms controls the material in question. The “realism” of Albany, Rasula would no doubt argue, is not that of personal expression but of a language game that allows for “thick” subject-matter even as it formalizes and thus distances it.

But must it be either/or? Is it really the case that Silliman eschews “authorial domination”? I find myself increasingly uncomfortable with such formulations. For one thing, there is a very particular “voice” that comes through Albany. We have, to begin with, not the slightest doubt that this is a man’s poem: a man, sensitive to the sexual needs and difficulties of the women in his life, but centrally caught up in the political: the abuses of the cops, the need for demonstrations, the “bayonets on campus,” the question of “nationalist movements in the Third World.” “How concerned was I,” we read in sentence 11, “over her failure to have orgasms.” Evidently not overly concerned (the “she,” we learn later, is his wife Rochelle), since the very next sentence reads “Mondale’s speech was drowned by jeers.” Even such seemingly neutral statements as “My turn to cook” give Albany away as a man’s poem: woman’s “turn to cook,” let’s remember, is not an item of interest since it’s always woman’s turn.

The voice of Albany is matter-of-fact, street-wise, the voice of a largely self-educated working-class man who has slowly and painfully learned the craft of poetry, a man who’s been around and has had to put up with quite a bit, beginning with his father’s withholding of child support. Pain, violence and injustice are the facts of his life: sentence after sentence refers to murders, shoot-outs, abortions, riots, asbestos poisoning and the like. And even at the trivial level, difficulty dominates: “It was hard to adjust my sleeping to those hours when the sun was up.” “Becoming to live with less space.” “I used my grant to fix my teeth.” And so on. Yet Silliman’s utterances are by no means gloomy: on the contrary, his voice is sprightly, engaged, fun-loving, energetic, a voice that loves the word-play of “They call their clubs batons. They call their committees clubs.” Or “Eminent domain. Rotating chair.” Or “There were bayonets on campus, cows in India, people shoplifting books. I just wanted to make it to lunch time.”

No individual signature? Let’s compare the prose of Albany to the following extracts:

(1) How was I to know that the woman, seated next to me on the bus,
would, when the bus lurched, just appear to lose her balance,
and, as if to keep herself from swaying, would take hold of my arm
with her hand so that pressing me between her finger and thumb
she pinched my arm. Though I believed (looking at her sideways,
and seeing only that her lips were parted slightly, with her snout
breathing softly) that during the two or three minutes
in which this pain lasted, she was saying (or at least I imagined so
from the length of time that she held on to my arm
before releasing me) I wish that I could make you yelp just once.

(2) A and Not-A are the same.

My dog does not know me.

Violins like dreams, are suspect.

I come from Kolophon, or perhaps some small island.

The strait has frozen, and people are walking–a few skating– across it.

On the crescent beach, a drowned deer.

A woman with one hand, her thighs around your neck.

The world is all that is displaced.

Applies in a stall at the street corner by the Bahnhof, pale yellow to blackish red.

Memory does not speak.

Shortness of breath, accompanied by tinnitus.

(3) A man is standing in front of a window. In possession of
what he sees. A person becomes a lens on a room inside.
Then to walk into the room on sequent occasions. The
lights go down on the buildings outside. The window is
off the kitchen, the room is filled with people. Smoke
coming out of the cracks. What can he have. All words
resolve this matter like a huge weight balancing on a single
point. That point is in motion, verging from one word to
the next. A cyclone covers the surface of the ceiling with
wavering lines. The room fills in with fragments of their
talk. But a window is an opening to the outside. He is
contradicted in his rooms, imagining a better place to live.

All three of these passages come from poetic works by West Coast poets associated with the Language movement: they are, respectively, Leslie Scalapino’s “hmmmm” from Considering how exagerrated music is, Michael Palmer’s “Autobiography” in At Passages, and Barrett Watten’s “City Fields” in Frame (1971-1990) .[7] All three poets would insist, I think, that theirs is not an “expressivist” poetry, that, in Palmer’s words, “He regards the self as just another sign.” And it is true that, read against, say, a lyric by Seamus Heaney or Louise Gluck, there is no doubt that Scalapino, Palmer, and Watten are trying, in the words of Jasper Johns, to “do something else” with language, true that they have no interest in the closural first-person metaphoric model of mainstream poetry.

But to label these texts “Language poems” and let it go at that tells us very little. Scalapino’s nine-line paragraph has a perfectly consistent angle of vision, quite unlike Silliman’s collage-prose. It is part of a longer sequence on the uncanny and terrifying substrate of ordinary life. Scalapino’s empiricist “flat” narrative purports merely to describe what happened, but what did? The scene, as so often in Silliman, [8] is on a bus; the poet is sitting next to an unknown woman. When the bus lurches, this woman, evidently to keep her balance, grabs the poet’s arm and pinches it. The incident couldn’t be more trivial but the narrator is convinced that the woman is pinching her on purpose, that somehow she is telling herself, I wish that I could make you yelp just once. There is no evidence for this malice, but no evidence against it either: we only know that “her lips were parted slightly, with her snout breathing softly,” the word “snout” for “mouth” connoting a malignant, animal quality. But of course the real focus of this paragraph is not on the stranger but on the “I,” who reads these sinister motives into the most ordinary of incidents. Somehow–how?–her mind’s not right, or is it that her suspicion is merely the emblem of the larger, depersonalized, tooth-and-claw survival of the fittest that characterizes the postmodern metropolis?

Scalapino’s prose, in any case, far from being disjointed like Silliman’s, moves seamlessly from beginning to end, from the question “How was I to know…” to the projected words of the stranger presented in italics. Silliman would never describe the woman as having a snout; indeed, his eyes would rest on the surface of her person and quickly, impatiently, move on to something else–a memory, perhaps, or a description of a boarding house, or an amusing pun that occurs to him. His jaunty utterances, upbeat despite the constant difficulties he faces, are quite unlike the just barely controlled hysteria of “Hmmm.”

Michael Palmer’s lineated poem is called “Autobiography” but the poet’s tone is more impersonal than either Silliman’s or Scalapino’s. His short sentences, separated by large areas of white space, are enigmatic and parabolic. Some of his aphorisms–”A and not-A–are the same”; “The world is all that is displaced”–allude to Wittgenstein, the latter a nice twist on “The world is everything that is the case” (1.1. of the Tractatus). Some sentences contain literary allusions: “My dog does not know me,” for example, inverts Gertrude Stein’s, “I am I because my little dog knows me.” In this context, “My dog does not know me” is equivalent to saying “I am nothing.” “All clocks are clouds” brings to mind a Magritte painting; and such lines as “Winter roses are invisible,” and “Late ice sometimes sings,” are written under the sign of Breton’s Nadja and related Surrealist dreamworks. Unlike either Silliman or Scalapino, both of them insistently urban poets, Palmer is given to references to “roses” and “ice,” to “the crescent beach, a drowned deer.” And these nature images are underscored by references to foreign (usually European) locales, as in “Apples in a stall at the streetcorner by the Bahnhof, pale yellow to blackish red.”) One thinks here of Apollinaire ‘s “Zone” or Cendrars’s “Panama, or My Seven Uncles.”

Altogether, Palmer’s imagination is more visual than Silliman’s; his memories more hallucinatory and dreamlike. His is the anxiety, not of the malignant, faceless crowd, as in Scalapino’s piece, but of the empty room: “Violins, like dreams, are suspect.” “There is,” David LeviStrauss has remarked, “a quite identifiable first person running through [Palmer’s] books. It is usually male, neurasthenic, doubtful, by turns cheerful and morose: a reluctant survivor. If it had a visible companion, the other might be called Didi or Clov or Camier. This first person is trepidatious and apologetic, constantly undercutting its own authority.” [9] Thus in “Autobiography,” Silliman’s sturdy resilience gives way to “Shortness of breath, accompanied by tinnitus.” And although, like Silliman, Palmer writes a poetry of parataxis, his is a juxtapositioning of literary, philosophical, and aesthetic fragments rather than the phenomenology of everyday life characteristic of Silliman.

Yet another kind of psychic drive can be found in Barrett Watten’s prose poem, again part of a longer sequence. Unlike Silliman, Scalapino, and Palmer, Watten uses the third person, but his narrator, who becomes “a lens on a room inside,” functions as a kind ofJamesian register, through whom all “events” and items perceived are filtered. It is he who is “in possession of what he sees” first from outside the room and then from inside. He who feels cut off from the “fragments of their talk”. Yet he is more confident than Palmer’s self-critical “I,” more assertive about “imagining a better place to live.” Anxiety, for Watten, is socially constructed and hence to be overcome: “All words resolve this matter like a huge weight balancing on a single point.” For the moment, however, there is no escape: “A cyclone covers the surface of the ceiling with wavering lines.”
In Watten’s account of displacement and possible reconnection, each sentence leads to the next. If Silliman were writing this, “The window is off the kitchen,” would be followed by a sentence like “Net income is down 13%” or “They photograph Habermas to hide the hairlip.” Watten’s prose is more chaste, consecutive, linear; his vocabulary less exuberant and varied. And even though his narrator never speaks in his own person, a voice–measured yet urgent, direct yet highly “educated”–comes through. Again, no one would mistake this passage for a work by Silliman.

“Voice,” it would seem, is not so easily eradicated. But what happens when the elaborately constructed collage of Albany is used to design the openly autobiographical narrative of its successor Under Albany, coming a full fifteen years later? In a letter to me (10 January 1998), Silliman comments, “I used the sentences of Albany to tell me what to write, where to focus, that moment in the essay. The whole premise of Albany (or at least a premise) was to focus on things that were both personal and political, so when Gale called it seemed like the right place to begin. That poem always has been my autobiography, so to speak” (my italics).

The first sentence of Albany, and hence of Under Albany is “If the function of writing is to ‘express the world.’” The sentence is left suspended, the reference to writing as expression can be made only by using scare quotes. In the same vein, the last sentence of Under Albany (not a title from the original) is “It is not possible to ‘describe a life.’” Again the disclaimer, again the scare quotes. But of course the text itself does express the poet’s world, does describe a life–and does so very graphically and movingly. Despite Silliman’s evident desire to subvert the autobiographical, the lyrical, the confessional, in keeping with Language poetics, the urge is to express. On the other hand–and this is an important difference–one “expresses,” not by putting oneself at the center of the universe, but by following Wittgenstein’s precept that “The limits of my language mean the limits of my world.” “The subject,” says Wittgenstein, “does not belong to the world but it is a limit of the world” (Tractatus 5.6, 5.632).

Silliman’s one-hundred titles constitute the limits in question. Under the first, “If the function of writing is to ‘express the world’,” we have an anecdote about the fifth grade writing contest where young Ron separates himself from the class “star” and “wild kid,” Jon Arnold, and begins, unknowingly, to find his own métier, scribbling “longhand tales scrawled into thick notebooks (‘the assassination of Hitler,’ ‘manned rocket flies behind moon only to disappear’).” The function of writing, it quickly appears, is to “express the world,” at least, with the Wittgensteinian proviso, “the world as I found it.” Arnold’s flashy paper on “the reaction of students hearing him . . . read aloud” is an index to his later career: “I veered away from Arnold by the time high school arrived, his outsiderness reaching regular truancy. . . . When I saw him at State nearly 20 years later . . . the narrative of clothing was aging beach boy, his torso and limbs, every visible inch, covered with tattoos.” For Silliman, by contrast, home life was so bad that “school presented itself as an alternate society (if not reality), an utter necessity.” And that necessity is soon translated into “writing.” The very next title sentence, “My father withheld child support, forcing my mother to live with her parents, my brother and I to be raised together in a small room,” leads to a second account of story-telling–this time the horror stories with which nine-year old Ron barraged his younger brother, scaring the little boy nearly to death . Atypically, Silliman here probes motivation:

The cruelty of my behavior is evident. It’s not an excuse to say that I was nine years old, or twelve. What motivated me? Over forty years later, it is still unclear to me whether I was driven out of a confused sense that my brother’s arrival shortly after the disappearance of my father had been, in some vague way, the cause of that man’s abandonment, or whether the practice of emotional terrorism (modelled with such artistry by my grandmother) was simply the only form of autonomy I understood. (UA 3)

It sounds, at this point, like anybody’s autobiography–the standard retrospective account in which the mature narrator tries to make sense of the child he once was, tries to understand his motives and the familial/ social matrix in which they were developed. But just when we are comfortable with the convention, we come to sentence #3:

Grandfather called them niggers.

So that I was surprised at how many elderly African American men, all, like my grandfather, members of the Veterans for Foreign Wars (VFW) came to his funeral. (3)

In the context of Albany, the first sentence is taken at face value. Followed as it is in the poem by “I can’t afford an automobile,” it gives us a sense of the bleak deprivation and petty racism of white working-class Albany, CA. But in the autobiography, the meaning shifts: perhaps, the reader now surmises, “calling them niggers” wasn’t equivalent to simple racism, for, as Veterans of World War I, black and white actually came together.

The disparity between title and text points up an interesting feature of Silliman’s work. On the one hand, the commissioned autobiographical piece seems much more “straightforward” than its earlier “poetic” source. The paragraphs themselves are not made up of disparate sentences arranged paratactically; their mode is narrative–a very immediate, documentary narrative that seems designed to give as accurate a “picture” as possible of growing up in a dysfunctional family in the dreary North Bay and moving on to the seamier spaces of San Francisco. Although the chronology is by no means straightforward, we learn a great deal about Ron’s “background.” For example:

Yet his best friend was Hispanic.

What I know of my grandfather’s family is almost entirely hearsay, although I never once in the 15 years I lived with the man heard him speak of them. His mother was “a monster,” “a terror,” “cold” and “mean.” On that my mother and grandmother both agreed. (I should be suspicious. This is the exact story I hear about my father and his family from my maternal grandmother). . . .

My grandmother’s first memory of him came from an event in the combined fifth-sixth grade class at LeConte School they attended. A fellow student had had a seizure and my grandfather, following the recommended practice of the day, had inserted his belt into the boy’s mouth to keep him from swallowing his tongue. While my grandmother, the youngest of 11 surviving children in a single-parent household, only made it to ninth grade, my grandfather graduated from Oakland Technical High School and worked briefly for Santa Fe railraod before joining the army and shipping off to Paris to load taxis with munitions during the First World War. Returning, he took a job with what was then called the Paraffin Company in Emeryville where he worked from 1919 until 1961. (UA 9)

This flat, documentary, straightforward account strikes me as curiously horrific. Not because the story is so sad–that would be normal–but because it is so empty. Imagine working for the Paraffin Company in Emeryville for over forty years, doing more or less the same job! Forty yeqrs during which nothing remarkable seems to happen. A more artful autobiographer would have heightened it, would have found a way to give Grandfather’s life symbolic meaning, as, say, Robert Lowell does in his “91 Revere Street.” But Silliman feels sorry neither for the grandfather nor for himself. For him, the personal is always political, and although the poet never says so in so many words, the kind of alienated labor described is just that–there is nothing more to say about it. His own path, in any case, will be different: via an endless assortment of odd jobs, writing workshops, and hoops to jump through, he will remake himself as a poet.

The macrostructure of Under Albany is thus that of Bildungsroman–a kind of Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, where the young man is both poet and political activist in the Vietnam years. But because this particular activist-poet discovers that the self is constructed in language, he uses his core sentences to play verbal games with the reader. For example:

Revenue enhancement.
I do not recall a time in which I was not the absolutely poorest kid in my class.

or

Television unifies conversation.
Our next door neighbors, the Pruters, were the first on the block to own a set, a large box with a small blue round screen. A year later, when we first bought ours, we would turn it on at 5.00p.m. every day, letting it warm up for a half hour against one of the test patterns that was on before the arrival of the first broadcast, Howdy Doody. (12)

or

I look forward to old age with some excitement.
Sixteen years later, I writing from my room 218 in the Motel Six of Porterville, in the Sierra foothills north of Bakersfield. My nephew, Stephen Matthew Silliman is just four days old. Allen Ginsberg has been dead for 13 days. Their worlds never crossed, just as mine never crossed Gertrude Stein’s. But I know people who have slept with people who have slept with people who slept with Walt Whitman. At 94, Carl Rakosi’s mind clear as a bell. Others at 24, hopelessly muddied and muddled. Once, walking on the beach at Stinson with Rae Armantrout during our student days at Berkeley, I knelt to pick up a beautifully pocked smooth gray stone (I still have it). She asked me what I was doing. “Looking for the good ones,” I replied. (23-24)

The technique in these passages is much subtler than it seems. In all three cases the sentences don’t necessarily “follow” their titles: the discourse shifts from business lingo (“Revenue enhancement”) to the personal (#1), or contradicts the title, as in #2, where television “unifies” conversation only in the sense that everyone is staring at the same set, making only the occasional comment; everyone, moreover, is watching the same program the neighbors are watching. So much for good conversation. In #3, the paragraph does serve as “illustration” for the “topic sentence,” but in a very oblique way. The poet is meditating on the ubiquitous conjunction of birth (his nephew’s) and death (Allen Ginsberg’s), on the interrrelation of lives, past and present. The idea of recovering Whitman’s past via a series of people who have slept with other people is comically grotesque, but it illustrates nicely Silliman’s optimism, his ability to find some trivial emblem of the good life–in this case the “beautifully pocked smooth gray stone.” One feels here that the “absolutely poorest kid in the class” has become steadily happier. Thus he actually can look forward to old age. But “with excitement”? Only in the sense that the “Ron” of Under Albany has always looked forward to the next stage of his life with excitement.

There is no “reasonable” explanation of this mood. Another person might have reacted quite differently to being the poorest kid in the class or having had his father desert him. And there are strange and startling moments, for example in “Two weeks too old to collect orphan’s benefits,” with its account of eighteen-year old Ron’s first acid trip. followed by an unpleasant confrontation with his mother, back home, who, not recognizing the symptoms, accuses him of being drunk:

Then she added, almost in the same breath, before I could decide whether or not to trust myself to say anything at all, that she’d gotten a phone call from my uncle in Pasco. My father had been in an accident somewhere in South Carolina. After several days, he’d died. I still didn’t say anything, nor did she. I went to the room that was nominally mine and lay on the bed I’d grown up with–the “cottage cheese” stucco and asbestos walls pulsated every shade of the rainbow. I don’t recall what I thought–I don’t even recall thinking–but I remember looking inside myself, imagining that I should find an emotion somewhere, puzzled a little that I seemed to find none. (UA 27)

How are we meant to react to this grotesque moment? Explanation, here as elsewhere, gives way to description, as Wittgenstein insisted it should. And the longish narrative in question now yields to a very different time and place, the title sentence being “A woman on the train asks Angela Davis for an autograph.” Beneath this caption we read, “Some of the passengers on the BART car look up, trying to figure out who the “famous” woman is. I’m sitting half a car away, jotting in a notebook.” What is the relation of the death of the prodigal father–a death learned of while high on acid–to this Angela Davis-on-the-bus vignette?

We can take it in various ways. Perhaps the passivity of the poet’s mother in the face of desertion leads her son to activism. Perhaps he escapes into it? Or perhaps he is not all that interested in the Angela Davis phenomenon, busy as he is scribbling in his notebook. Events, in any case, are not related in logical ways: in Under Albany, juxtaposition of the larger units is modelled on the parataxis of the individual sentences of Albany. Thus, although the passages themselves are narrative and coherent, we move easily from sexual encounters to rallies, to memories of the front porch at Albany, to those who ask Angela Davis for her autograph. The “new sentence” thus gives way to what we might call the “new paragraph.” The reader has to fill in the blanks.

And this is of course what Silliman wants us to do. In the interview with Vogler and Marshall, he remarks that “my writing aims at bringing the reader as deeply inside the immediate unit of writing as possible–the sentence, the line, the word” (16). Unlike the usual “‘voice’ trope,” he maintains, “an elaborate conceit . . . that attempts to focus the reader’s experience outside of him-or herself,” his writing is designed to allow the reader to “activate” the text, to “sense how her own nose interrupts and shapes the lower limit of the horizon” (17).
One might interject here that good poets have always “activated” reader response in this way, have always allowed for gaps which the reader must construct and interpret. And, Silliman is quick to add , he is by no means suggesting that anything goes: “The revolution of the word,” as he puts it, “is not an anarchist event.” Indeed, “as the author, I get to determine unilaterally which words in what order will set forth the terms through which the experience shall occur” (17, my italics).

Is Silliman’s then, as Jed Rasula posits, a “grand refusal of the chronic strategies of authorial domination”? Yes, if by “chronic” we are referring to the confessional mode of the sixties and seventies, in which verbal material is all but subsumed under the presence of a commanding “I.” But if we look further afield and read Silliman against Blaise Cendrars or Apollinaire, against the early Eliot or the late Stevens, not to mention Williams and Stein, we learn that it’s perfectly reasonable to think of Silliman as an individual lyric poet, a poet whose mainspring, however bound to the theorems of early Language poetics, has always been essentially autobiographical.
Under Albany ends with the poet’s marriage to Krishna and the implication that life in the Bay area is over: The final title is

The want-ads lie strewn on the table.

There follows the poem’s conclusion, “It is not possible to ‘describe a life’” (57). But in fact it is possible and we have just seen it happen. The caveat is that such description can never produce closure. The want-ads, strewn on the table on Silliman’s final page point toward the future: another job, another city, another life. And in this sense it really is “not possible to ‘describe a life’,” for in the act of writing, it continues to be lived. The future must be extracted, bit by tantalizing bit, from “under” Albany.

Footnotes


[1]
Ron Silliman, “Language, Realism, Poetry,” preface to The American Tree, ed. Ron Silliman (Orono: National Poetry Foundation, 1986), pp. xv, xix.

[2]
Charles Bernstein, “An Interview with Tom Beckett,” The Difficulties, 2, 1 (1982); rpt. in Content’s Dream: Essays 1975-1084, p. 408. The volume is subsequently cited as CD.

[3]
Ron Silliman, “Disappearance of the Word, Appearance of the World,” The New Sentence (New York: Roof, 1987).

[4]
Charles Bernstein, “Aun Autobiographical Interview Conducted by Loss Pequeño Glazier,” Contemporary Authors Autobiography Series 24 (Gale Research, 1997),pp. 31-50. Silliman’s is forthcoming in Volume 29.

[5]
Since Under Albany is in press, all page references are to the manuscript.

[6]
Jed Rasula, “Ron Silliman,” Contemporary Authors (Detroit: St. James Press, 1996), p. 1009.

[7]
Leslie Scalapino, “hmmmm,” Considering how exaggerated music is (San Francisco: North Point, 1982), p. 21; Michael Palmer, “Autobiography,” At Passages (New York: New Direction, 1995), p. 84; Barrett Watten, “City Fields” (1978) in Frame (1971-1990) (Los Angeles: Sun & Moon, 1997), p. 137.

[8]
In Under Albany, Silliman notes that both Sitting Up, Standing, Taking Steps and The Chinese Notebook were written entirely on Golden Gate transit; see p. 3, n. 4.

[9]
David Levi Strauss, “Aporia and Amnesia” (review of Michael Palmer’s At Passages), The Nation, 23 December 1996, p. 27.