“Sentence Not Sentence”

Noticings for Sulfur #39

Steve McCaffery, The Cheat of Words (Toronto: ECW Press).
Tom Raworth Clean & Well Lit: Selected Poems 1987-1995 (New York: Roof Books).

Susan Howe, Frame Structures: Early Poems 1974-1979 (New York: New Directions).

Vincent Bugliosi, Outrage: The Five Reasons why O. J. Simpson got away with Murder (New York and London: W. W. Norton & Co.).

Reviewed by Marjorie Perloff

Published in Sulfur #39 (Fall 1996): 139-51.

When the O. J. Simpson verdict came in, I wept. I was on the plane between Los Angeles and San Jose (my weekly run up to Stanford) when the pilot gave us the news. No one around me seemed to react. Maybe I took it so hard because I had followed the case so closely and was (or rather, am) convinced that there wasn’t a doubt in the world that Simpson had committed the double murder. Maybe it was the immediacy of it all, given that I live a few minutes’ drive from Rockingham Road, regularly drive down Bundy past the “crime scene,” and have dined a number of times at the now notorious Mezzaluna on San Vicente Blvd. Or maybe I cried because the trial and its discourses were such living proof of the debasement of language in fin de siècle America.

What’s language got to do with it? What power is contained in such meter-making arguments as “If it doesn’t fit, you must acquit?” Well, given that, as Vincent Bugliosi’s devastating Outrage reminds us, the evidence against Simpson was absolutely overwhelming, the case may well have been “lost,” not primarily, as is the common wisdom, because the defense played the “race card,” or because “a predominantly black jury won’t convict a black defendant,” but because the rhetoric of the trial–the packaged language games and misuse of simple sentences and propositions to which we were all treated by the judge, the attorneys for both sides, as well as by the scandal-driven media, stood in the way of any sort of reasoned analysis.

Take the assumption that “police brutality” and “police framing” are equivalent, an assumption cynically put forward by the defense, never refuted by the prosecution, and quickly parrotted by the media. The former, as Bugliosi notes, is par for the course in the LA ghetto, where white policemen regularly harrass black citizens. Policy brutality is an outrage and it should be severely punished. But the latter, if we accept the Random House dictionary definition of “framing” as “incriminating an innocent person through the use of false evidence, information, etc.”, is extremely rare because it is extremely difficult and dangerous: if a police officer, much less a group of officers is found guilty of a frame-up, the death penalty is a real possibility. And, as Outrage demonstrates step by step, there was no way for even the despicable Mark Fuhrman to enlist the dozen other officers at the crime scene in the particular frame-up the LAPD ostensibly performed. Further: there is not a shred of evidence that a frame-up had occurred, the police having, on the contrary, covered up for Simpson The Celebrity for years. Indeed, the defense attorneys never dared to assert that Simpson actually had been framed. Insinuation was quite enough, the media soon referring sagely to “the LAPD plot to incriminate Mr. Simpson,” and so on. Thus, when Johnnie Cochran declared in his summation that the jury must return a “Not-Guilty” verdict so as to stop the Mark Fuhrmans of the world, with the fighting words, “If you don’t stop it, then who?”, there was no objection from the media or from the public even though the question is utterly absurd. In what possible sense could the twelve jurors in question “stop” police brutality or racism in America by finding O. J. Simpson not guilty? The answer is that they had no such power at all. Indeed, a year after the trial, racism is probably more rather than less pervasive: witness the church burnings in the South and the new “militias” in Montana and Arizona. As Bugliosi remarks acidly, the real question the jurors should have been asked was “If Mr. Simpson didn’t commit these murders, then who?”

These are just small details in a complicated network of language crimes (another is the term “dream team,” invented by the media, perpetuated by one and all, and in fact, as Bugliosi shows, quite contrary to the facts) that characterized the Simpson trial. A word or phrase is used by an attorney (and the prosecution was by no means better than the defense in this regard), the media circus picks it up, the talking head slike Gerry Spence and Leslie Abrahmson comment sagely on it, and next thing you know, it is accepted as the truth without the slightest resort to logic or simple common sense. Thus the claim that “It was probably the Columbia Drug Lords,” was regularly heard by guests on Larry King Live and similar programs, without any consideration that it would be preposterous for Central American hit men (who almost always use guns) to stab their unknown victim (presumably Nicole Simpson) seven times and break her neck. In the context of the brutal butcherings (Goldman was stabbed thirty times on his scalp, face, neck, chest, abdomen, and left thigh), “Columbia drug lords” (or “Columbia necklace”) is no more than a linguistic chip, designating sleazy, dark, unknown people from “down there,” who must be the ones who kill “our” citizens “up here.”

The “trial of the century” has been much on my mind in the course of reading the new books just published (I am writing in July 1966) by Susan Howe, Steve McCaffery, and Tom Raworth, all of them so-to-speak language poets avant la lettre, their first (small press or broadside) books dating back to the early seventies or, in Raworth’s case, even earlier. Despite obvious differences as to gender, age (McCaffery is ten years younger than Howe and Raworth), nationality (Howe is Irish-American, Raworth, English; McCaffery English-born but a resident of Canada since 1968), and temperament, here are three poets who have assiduously tested the limits of language, foregrounding the materiality of writing rather than its communication of specific meanings. At the same time– and here the poets in question differ from most of their younger followers– all three write very much within the English (and in Howe’s case American) literary tradition: at every turn, their poems echo, allude to, and parody earlier poetic models. But all three are also highly aware of living in a culture that has been reinvented by the electronic media, a culture in which language functions as the sort of tic we find in Johnnie Cochran’s “If you don’t stop it, then who?” Thus titles like The Cheat of Words (McCaffery), Frame Structures (Howe), and Clean & Well Lit (Raworth).

The Cheat of Words carries on Steve McCaffery’s ambitious project (its most recent installments were the long prose texts in The Black Debt [1989] and Theory of Sediment [1991]) to challenge what he has called “fenestrational necessity, a mandate to linguistic transparency though which all beings and events [are] forced to pass,” or again, a “neutral ground of language” as “uninterrupting sediment of support and an un-differentiated surface upon which events are ordered.” [1] Such “ordering,” McCaffery would argue, is specious to begin with, given the inherent “shiftiness” of language and the refusal of meaningful phrases to take their appointed place inside a set of coherent structures, into monological messages like “If it doesn’t fit, you must acquit.” Hence the poet’s predilection for figures like the Deleuzian rhizome (the structure in which every node can be connected with every other node, allowing for the possibility of contradictory inferences) and the Klein worm–”a form which differs from conventional geometric forms in its characteristic absence of both inner and outer surfaces” (NI 20).

The refusal of “transparency” is not just some form of willful obscurantism or rhetorical one-up-manship: “the project,” as Charles Bernstein puts it, “is to wake us from the hypnosis of absorption.”[2] It is such hypnosis, after all, from which the prosecutors were evidently suffering when they made no more than a half-hearted effort to refute the defense’s claim that the blood in the white Bronco may have been planted, even though Simpson himself had admitted, in his original taped deposition (see Appendix A in Outrage), that he “dripped blood” in his car, home, and driveway the night of the murder. To confront this hyper-absorption, in McCaffery’s lexicon, is to produce a poetic response like “Writing a Sand Thinking”:

After the gossip one returns to grammar.

Almost to say that speech

compares us

renting that as a fact the case stands firm

for what we own.


by relations instance this as

the index of my slab.      Your

slap at it.

The clouds pastiche aubade

Sid’s bakery delivers            symmetry

inside an adult formula for

Saturdays. Our poppies

in history. (The Cheat of Words, p. 31)

Writing in the sand is, of course, one of the oldest metaphors for erasure, for that which is forgotten or lost. McCaffery’s title suggests that a lot of what passes for “thinking” is equally “losable.” In his fourteen-line poem, a pastiche sonnet in which no two lines are the same length, nothing “rhymes” with anything else, and enjambment is the rule, the only end-stopped line is the comically alliterating and portentuous opening, “After the gossip one returns to grammar,” which brings to mind Wallace Stevens’s meditative lines, “After the leaves have fallen, we return / To a plain sense of things.” For McCaffery, there is never a “plain sense of things.” Gossip tries to get at what happened to whom, but its referentiality is by definition specious (i.e., “it’s only gossip”), which is why Wittgenstein declared that “All that is not gas is grammar.” For grammar, the way sentences are actually constructed, is amenable to examination. Speech, by contrast “compares us,” which is dangerous, confusing “rent[al]” (borrowed words?) with ownership. And “Pragma” (the diminutive of “pragmatics,” in the sense of edicts, ordinances of state) try to define “this as / the index of my slab.” What slab? Is it the poet’s index finger? The “slab” of Philosophical Investigations, where it functions in the most elementary of language games? However we characterize it, “you” “slap at it.” And why not, given all those shared phonemes: “slab”/ “slap”? Who “owns” these words, anyway?

An “aubade” is a dawn song, usually expressing the lovers’ regret that the night has passed so quickly and that they must separate. If it’s cloudy, though, daylight may not yet be perceivable, and so “The clouds pastiche aubade.” Instead of impending separation, the “adult formula” for this Saturday morning prescribes mealtime. “Sid’s bakery delivers,” providing “symmetry” to our lives and relegating sleep (poppies) to history.

If I have indulged in a somewhat labored reading of what is a delightfully playful poem, it is in order to suggest that, contrary to the still dominant view that McCaffery’s poems “refuse to mean,” on the contrary, this little “fourteener”–one of the slighter texts in this collection of thirty-nine poems– has a great deal “to say.” It is written, to begin with, very much in a particular tradition: the metaphysical tradition of love sonnets and aubades, poems about our thought processes on the morning after the night before. But there is nothing “personal” or “confessional” here: no specifiers about the poet and his mistress, who may (or may not?) be present. No generalizations are being made about sex, marriage, or anything else because McCaffery is suggesting that one can’t return to the “plain sense of things,” only to grammar, to how it works. The poem thus demands strong reader involvement: any number of plots will fit the “adult formula” of this sand-writing / thinking. And who knows what it is that “Sid’s bakery delivers”?

But why is such reader participation, such “Conjectural and sediment to emendation” (p. 43) necessary? Because it forces us to slow down and pay attention, to defamiliarize and hence call into question the way we normally process information:

This recording was recorded live

distance            wind switched part

a village where

this record was recoded. (“Blue Note,” p. 44)

Here McCaffery plays on such commonplaces as “broadcast live from X” (where the very act of broadcasting of course makes the performance-as-heard obviously not live), on “long distance” as ostensibly presenting us with “live” voices, despite the possibility of “switch[ing] part[s]” to produce the voices of the dead, and on the claim for the ethnographic authenticity of the generic “village,” even though here, as in more “civilized” settings, the record has been “recoded,” that is, tampered with. In this scheme of things:

in the direction that erections take

this one has become a false path (“Learning Lenin,” p. 56)

and the proffering of alternatives has been reduced to phrases like “Either you carve or it’s my lamp” (p. 57). This sentence comes from a poem called “Discourse on Method,” which is made up of one-line units, Descartes’s cogito (“I think therefore I am”) gradually modulating, via lines like “Lungs get repetitive” and “Break a neck,” into “I thought therefore I was,” and then “I think therefore I’ll be.” The mode is Wittgensteinian, a mere shift in tense or the substitution of a single word transforming a logical proposition into an absurd one.

If McCaffery’s unit is the single line, often the single word with space (silence) playing an active role, Tom Raworth’s poetic mode is the opposite, his unpunctuated blocks of lightly stressed short lines speeding full steam ahead, as if to say that any word or phrase can belong with any other, provided they are incorporated in the same columnar block of text or pronounced in one long breath. Raworth has been using these columns for more than a decade now (especially in the long poem Writing, published by The Figures in 1982), they jet across our field of vision so swiftly and yet modestly that it takes a moment to realize how intricately planned they are. Take, for example, the first fourteen lines of “Out of the Picture,” the long narrative poem that opens Clean & Well Lit:

the obsolete ammunition depot

unmissed and unreported

put it in categories

still glistened with dampness

suits seemed to be identical

through the window behind him

a battered cardboard box

won somewhere gambling

dim bell in his memory

was making a duplicate

to see if that needed explanation

sharply, and then, more gently

the door opened

three thousand miles east of home (p. 11)

I am arbitrarily braking after line 14 but there is no visual, aural, or semantic break in this 199-line ticker-tape text; the “picture” ( a film-script of sort that that seems to allude to war, science fiction, gangster exploits –you name it!) just coming into focus (“now that he was aware of it”) as it dissolves. For such an “open” text, however, “Out of the Picture” is highly structured both phonemically and syntactically. The predominant sound of these lightly stressed “fast” lines is a short vowel sound followed by the voiceless stop t, as in:

the obsolete ammunition depot

unmissed and unreported

put it in categories

Seven instances in eleven words (although “depot” is eye rhyme rather than consonance), the light t continuing all the way down the page to the last line, “printed on them suited me,” and then to the last line of the whole poem, “now that he was aware of it.”

Sound repetition (and there are many other patterns) is played off against what is an almost 100% rate of syntactic variation. Far from being merely random, in which case syntactic patterns would repeat, Raworth has arranged it so that no two lines in a row follow the same syntax. To exemplify briefly, the first fourteen lines above go like this:

Noun phrase with adjectival modifier

past participles used as predicate adjectives

imperative clause (or past indicative verb + adverbial compliment)

past indicative verb + prepositional phrase

complete clause (subject, verb, predicate) in past tense

prepositional phrase modified by preopositional phrase

noun phrase with adjectival modifier

past indicate verb + present participle

noun phrase + prepositional phrase

past progressive verb + object

infinitive + conditional clause

adverb + qualifier + adverb

complete clause (subject +predicate)

adverbial phrase of time

No doubt, this chart will strike many readers as pedantic, but I hope it will show the ways sameness and difference operate in Raworth’s verbal scheme. A lesser poet would follow “the obsolete ammunition depot,” with a series of similar noun phrases or would provide us with a continuous sentence, chopped into line lengths. Raworth’s phrases, on the other hand, try to get “at” the substance of the poem from every possible angle–description, rumor, hearsay, narrative account, qualifier–even as what is missing throughout all this variability is the subject. Who or what “still glistened with dampness,” “won somewhere gambling,” “was making a duplicate.” Where is the “obsolete ammunition depot”; where is it that “the door opened / three thousand miles east of home”? What good does it do us to be given the specifier “three thousand miles east” when we don’t know where “home” is? Is it possible to bring “out” what is “in the picture”? On the one hand, the writing is descriptive: something “still glistened with dampness”; “a battered cardboard box” seems to be visible “through the window behind him” (but who is “him?), “the door opened,” and so on. But then there are the abstractions of “put it in categories” and “to see if that needed explanation.” And the observation that “suits seemed to be identical” is undercut by the lack of information we have as to those suits. Whose were they? And are they suits of clothing, suits of cards, or what?

As we weigh one line against the other, however, an exciting tale seems to be emerging, rather like one of those tiny Japanese paper packets, put in water and taking shape as a flower. Is this The Bridge on the River Kwai or similar film? The “ammunition depot” might well be “obsolete” in time of peace; it is logical for it to be “unmissed and unreported.” But how to “put it in categories? Perhaps inside the depot, the identical suits are found, “still glisten[ing] with dampness.” And there are further testimonials like the “battered cardboard box / won somewhere gambling.” Indeed, a “dim bell in his [the poet’s?] memory,” was “making a duplicate,” which is to say, conjuring up the representation of the original to “see if that needed explanation.” But then “gently / the door opened / three thousand miles east of home.” Is this a reference to the past event narrated or to the present of the poet who rediscovers it? We cannot tell, but as the poem speeds ahead, more and more clues appear within the “heavy coating of dust” and “panning over rough walls.” For instance, there is reference to bombings and to the “smell of wood burning,” on “costumed models / back in the car then / slumped down in the seat”–the latter bringing to mind an Ed Kienholz assemblage. A taxi heads back “to avoid hysterical screaming,” a woman “sob[s] / behind her veil,” a guard is killed, a train “makes an unscheduled stop,” a “mixture of standard tourists/ clustered around / the elegant camera bag / each holding a briefcase.” And throughout, there are metapoetic references, as in “camouflaged / against the cult of personality,” “he remembered the scene . . . slightly out of focus,” and “music wasn’t music any more.”

“Out of the Picture,” like the later “Coal Grass Blood Night Emerald” (just consider the complicated relationships between those five nouns and their animal-vegetable-mineral references), is the perfect poem to read when you are tired of reportage and interviews with “live” celebrities or famed victims of one sort or another. If we can’t get inside O.J.’s mind (as Chris Darden claimed to do in his opening statement about “control”), what a pleasure and challenge to enter the voyage realm of “Out of the Picture,” to be transported elsewhere, without a hectoring presence that tells us what to make of this or that detail. Partitions, mirrors, “dimly lit / parking lot[s] / set well back from the road”: the imagination is fired. When “a train makes an unscheduled stop / he’d never heard before / suppressing an urge to look back for. . .” the object of “look back for ” turns out to be, quite inconsequentially, “something to read.” In the meantime, on every rereading, “Out of the Picture” yields new nuggets of meaning. In the course of the poem, those short little “T-bar” syllables like jet and shot come together, making us aware of the darkness they enmesh.

If McCaffery’s poetic unit is what the Russian Futurists called “the word as such,” and Raworth’s might be characterized as the propulsion of non-stop verbal flow, Susan Howe’s is more properly collage. “Frame Structures,” the title of her new book as well as of its thirty-page Preface, refers to the “framing” the poet has provided for her four earliest books, originally published as chapbooks or small press volumes. They are Hinge Picture (Telephone Books, 1974), Chanting the Crystal Sea (Fire Exit, 1975), Secret History of the Dividing Line (Telephone Books, 1978), and Cabbage Gardens (Fathom Press, 1979). [3] Between these four works and the present of Frame Structures, nearly twenty years have elapsed, recognition having come to Howe only gradually, beginning in the mid-eighties with the warm reception given to My Emily Dickinson.

The early volumes remind us of that Howe started out as a visual artist. In Hinge Picture, for example, the epigraph comes from Duchamp’s notes for the Green Box: “Perhaps make a HINGE PICTURE. . . . develop in space the PRINCIPLE OF THE HINGE in the displacements 1st in the plane 2nd in space.” That principle stands behind the sequence’s visual layout: again and again, Howe discovers the paragrams within words by forcing her found texts (primarily from Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall) into rectangular units with justified left and right margins. In #1, for example, “intellect” is broken up into “intelle” and “ct,” “hieroglyph” into “h” and “ieroglyph,” each letter thus receiving special attention. And in Secret History of the Dividing Line, the title (derived, minus the word “Secret,” from William Byrd’s eighteenth-century journal of explorations in the Virginia wilderness) appears as a mirror image (see p. 94), even as the opening horizontal rectangles (again with justified left and right margins and double spacing) play on the word “MARK”:

mark mar ha forest 1 a boundary manic a land a

tract indicate position 2 record bunting interval

free also event starting the slightly position of

O about both of don’t something INDICATION Americ

made or also symbol sachem maimed as on her for

ar in teacher duct excellent figure MARK lead be

knife knows his hogs dogs a boundary model nucle

hearted land land land district boundary times un (p. 89)

Here mark refers first of all to the surveyor’s (William Byrd’s) mark made in delineating a boundary between “tract[s]” of forest land. But the mark is also a trace, a sign that points us to specific things that have happened: one thinks of Blake’s “London,” with its lines, “And mark in every face I meet / Marks of weakness, marks of woe.” The poem’s opening “Mark mar ha forest 1 a boundary manic” treats the word “mark” to its paragrammatic possibilities: “mar ha” may be separate words, referring to destruction and the exclamation of surprise, but then again, the two units may be part of the name “Martha,” the “t” missing in the imagined source manuscript Here and throughout the text, “boundary manic” is central to the poet’s thought; she is mesmerized by questions of “secret” divisions, borders, boundaries, fault lines. “MARK,” we read on p. 90, “border / bulwark, an object set up to indicate a boundary or position / hence a sign or token / impression or trace / The Horizon.” Then, too, Mark” refers both to Howe’s father (Mark de Wolfe Howe) and to her son, as the dedication on page 91 tells us. Indeed, the frontispiece informs us that Mark DeWolfe Howe’s Touched With Fire: The Civil War Letters and Diary of Oliver Wendell Holmes (Harvard University Press, 1947) is the poem’s primary source.

But–and this is what makes Frame Structures so intriguing–within the configuration of the new preface, the mark-ing or trace structure of Secret History of the Dividing Line, far from being incorporated into the larger frame of the new book, are always qualifying and transforming statements made in the prose memoir. Indeed, there is no external “frame,” no outside to contain the inside of the poems. Howe’s autobiographical memoir begins as a kind of feminist variant of Robert Lowell’s “91 Revere St.”–a portrait of the artist as New England blue-blood, neurotic child. “On Sunday, December 7, 1941,” we read, “I went with my father to the zoo in Delaware Park” (p. 3). The father, who is about to go to war, is not named and unlike Lowell, Howe does not give us a continuous narrative about persons and places. Rather, she shifts in the very next section to Colonial American history, specifically to the 1792 purchase by the Holland Land Company of the “wild lands” in central and western parts of New York and Pennsylvania. The references to the “land speculators, surveyors, promoters, publicists,” who settled in upper western New York State and founded the city of Buffalo, where Howe was born (and where she is once again living as a professor at SUNY) are spliced into the “secret history” of William Byrd’s explorations in Virginia a century earlier, the two narratives overlapping as parts of the larger tale of boundary-making, acquisitiveness, plunder, and war that characterized the newly formed “United States” for its inception.

But Howe never says this directly. Indeed her Preface provides no overt background material about the four early books reprinted by New Directions, the conditions under which they were written, how they were conceived, and so on. For such information, we may go to the Howe interviews in The Difficulties (1989) and Talisman (1992). In Frame Structures, the “evidence” for the poetry is accumulated obliquely and indirectly, the unnamed “my father” of Howe’s opening pages–the “Daddy” who went away to war– only emerging as Mark DeWolfe Howe half-way through the narrative, where he reappears as one of Felix Frankfurter’s disciplies at Harvard Law School and later his and Dean Ernest Griswold’s choice to produce the edition of Oliver Wendell Holmes’s letters and diary that became Susan Howe’s source in Secret History of the Dividing Line. We now learn that the sequel to this book, Touched with Fire, was called The Proving Years (1963), and that its first chapter is titled “‘The Stars and the Plough’ probably because that’s the title of The Plough and the Stars. Sean O’Casey’s play about the Easter Rising, named for the symbol on the flag of the Irish citizen army, is one of my mother’s favorites. The stars are the ideal the plough reality. I guess my father meant to put reality first” (p. 17).

The anecdote nicely embodies the poet’s heritage as she perceives it: the idealistic radicalism she derived from her Irish actress mother, Mary Manning, vis-à-vis the more tempered, scholarly historical imagination of her father Mark. But instead of now moving ahead chronologically, as would most autobiographers, Howe goes back in time, to her paternal grandfather, the antiquarian, Mark Antony DeWolfe Howe, her great-grandfather by the same name who was a distinguished Episcopal Bishop, and, beyond these two Mark Antonys, to the early d’Wolf (the original name) and Howe ancestors who were “generally sea captains, privateers, slave traders,” one having fought in King Philip’s War, another, James d’Wolf, evidently having thrown “a female African slave overboard during the Middle Passage because she was sick with smallpox.” “When this murderous ancestor could finally afford to buy his own slave ship, he christened her Sukey. Sukey is my nickname” (pp. 20-21).

How does the late twentieth-century radical woman poet deal with these events in her distant and not-so-distant past? “Space,” the narrator remarks at one point, “is a frame we map ourselves in” (p. 9). At certain junctures, and especially toward the end of “Frame Structures,” the formal narrative begins to break down. The poet as surveyor-excavator, working “where logic and mathematics meet the materials of art. Canvas, paper, pencil, color, frame, title,” refigures a page from Benjamin Franklin’s Memoirs (p. 27), lines running into one another and produced as overprint, the technique Steve McCaffery discusses so interestingly in his essay on Bill Bissett in North of Intention. “The essential part of any invention,” we read on Howe’s penultimate page, “is distance and connectness. We pass each other pieces of paper. A sheet of paper, a roll of film, the frame structure. Conceptual projects of the 1960s and 1970s combined windows, mirrors, garbage, photographs, video, dance, tape recordings, rope, steel, yarn, nails, cars, machines, just about anything.” (p. 28). Just so, when we now turn back to Secret History of the Dividing Line, individual passages emerge as “overprinted” with new significations, as in the case of the 26-line word column on p. 119, at the center of which we find

in time





How can we tell the framing from the framed? In the “Cinder of the lexical drift” which is the “secret history” of “Frame Structures,” every “dividing line” is submitted to further development and variation. This, the poet implies, is how “evidence” should actually be weighed and tested. For no frame can account for all the pieces in the puzzle (“it is hard to know where to begin,” as we read on the last page of Howe’s Preface), but the text’s intricate interplay, its metonymic network of marks and traces, calls into question such discourses as that of the postmodern courtroom, as well as of the verbal world that mediates it for us. “If it doesn’t fit / you must acquit”: can the “fit” game Simpson put on for the jury really function as such an isolated instance? And where is the “dividing line” between “may” and “must”?

In an interview with Clint Burnham, McCaffery makes a case against the hackneyed designation of radical poetries as being “experimental”:

Experimental suggests (perhaps implies) a scientific model and an enterprise based on trial and error. This metaphoric implication further allows the disvalidation of works as “having failed.” But trial, error, failure and success are totally inappropriate to these cultural productions. A better term might be “exploratory” evoking a spatial rather than scientific metaphor. [4]

That spatial metaphor also animates Raworth’s vertical word columns and Howe’s “frame structures.” The “displacements” of the Duchampian “hinge picture,” “1st in the plane 2d in space,” force us to rethink those facile buzzwords and clichés that permeate the culture. To put it in the context of Simpson-speak, if it doesn’t fit, explore the hand inside the glove, and see what that cut on the middle finger may tell you.


[1] Steve McCaffery, “And Who Remembers Bobby Sands?” (1985), in North of Intention: Critical Writings 1973-86 (New York: Roof Books, 1986). p. 39. This book is subsequently cited in the text as NI.

Charles Bernstein, “Artifice of Absorption,” A Poetics (Cambridge and London: Harvard University Press, 1992), p.54..

In her Author’s Note, Howe explains that Cabbage Gardens was written before Secret History of the Dividing Line, although published subsequently.

Clint Burnham, “An Interview with Steve mcCaffery, Witz 1, no. 2 (Fall 1992): 3.