“A Continuous Fabric (Nerve Movie?)” Part Two

“A Continuous Fabric (Nerve Movie?)”:
Early Scalapino, Late Whalen
Part Two

by Bruce Holsapple

It’s salient, then, that although we’re intended to combine recurrent thoughts—for example, comments on being employed, the weather, having money, worries about ethical action and the afterlife—these concerns are as obviously set ajar in nonsensical ways.


There are six sections to Considering how exaggerated music is, each one long poem. I won’t discuss them in detail, but I would underscore that they are distinctly vocal projects. The second section, “The Woman Who Could Read the Minds of Dogs,” for instance, is a remembered discussion of early memories between a female and a 35 year old male whom she once knew on close terms, but who she now refers to simply as “the man.” The segments switch between them, each recounting travelogues, Europe, Mexico, India, Egypt, Mozambique, the West Indies, the man (in ten segments, always in quotes) speaking of his father and brothers, his missing (deceased) mother, and his prior wives. The narrator in contrast often speaks directly to him in six of the segments (the remaining two spoken by other women). Both persons are in their retellings foreigners, and their estrangement is a shared topic, though this isn’t really “an exchange.” The male refers, regularly, to his first and second wives, his dead mother and his father’s drunken mistress, so given a text written “after I had ceased to know the man”—an odd description—the references to pregnancy and childbirth and to the inability to speak (dead people with their lips sewn, the child who refuses to speak, the mistress spitting up a cicada, the wife “practically mute,” her dream of a hook in her mouth, her husband’s dream of making her swallow a bell, and so forth) take on a noticeable density. One is hard put not to align that content with the boat tightly circling round and round, or the car circling the hotel (both driven by men) or the man later dancing in circles, whose mind the narrator can read. Clearly, there’s a critique involved. The man doesn’t fully know the story he’s telling.

Perloff spoke (above) of hmmmm as simulating “ordinary speech” which becomes conspicuously unnatural as we read (Radical Artifice 50-1). That strangeness can be specified, for the book employs a studied use of talk— sentence construction is a distinct project, and sentence style varies by section. While the clauses of hmmmm don’t per se require scrutiny, they employ formulaic, conversational locutions such as “Let me explain,” “Isn’t it interesting,”  “Suppose,” “Haven’t I said,” “Let me say,” “How was I to know,” “Anyway,” and they are studded with warrants such as “seriously,” “really,” “literally,” and “sure,” so a conversational, offhand intimacy is mimicked and undermined. That’s to say, as well, sentence variety and use of speech formulas (and comments on tone) make evident that manner of speaking—voice—is being signaled as an interpretive factor.

Let me give a quick example. In the odd retellings of “The Woman Who Could Read the Minds of Dogs,” recollections are conspicuously interrupted by subordinating clauses, interjections, and parentheticals, indices of conversational immediacy, people thinking as they speak, and it’s a manner both speakers share. Note below how the woman postpones completing the initiating clause:

What the man whom we saw     (he looked like a derelict)     wanted
(we didn’t know him, of course) running like that alongside the car
we were in (we were in downtown traffic—he seemed to want in with
us,     the way he was running beside us,     without a word—
so that I said to the person I was with that I was reminded of me     ,
having refused to talk when I was young);     I don’t know. (38)

By postponing reference (to what the man wanted), the narrator suspends the  interrogative as she fills in details, bringing the story forward in a broken rush, and that movement foregrounds her refusal to talk when young. As a consequence, the missing referent, when it does arrive, becomes a concession, a plaintive “I don’t know,” oddly set off on its own. In a similar way, the rhythms and repetition of “in” (line three) suggest the man “whom we saw” wanting in with us as somehow iconic, reminding the speaker of that refusal to talk. The remaining lines in the piece compare the above derelict to an equally mysterious, impoverished woman, also left behind. It’s not explained why they’re significant, but both are active memories and exemplify an abandonment. That ineffable absence consequently becomes the topic.

The sentences of “Instead of an Animal” tell of a more oblique imagining, involving the objectivity of what one sees. Most of its segments report on an alien population, in third person, as if it were anthropological literature. The observations largely concern that alien population’s nursing and sexual behavior. The speaker is not altogether comfortable with what she witnesses, adult women suckling in public, for instance, and locates herself decisively outside of their sphere by use of clichéd locutions like “the mating couple” or “the adult male,” often referring to people in terms of whether or not they’re sexually mature (an issue that resurfaces in that they were at the beach). While her reports would establish an observational distance from the subject populace—and the natives do resemble ourselves in a sort of Swiftian satire—the speaker’s pretense to objectivity is also marked, for the reports are as warped as the behavior which they’d document, made so by formulaic, impersonal phrasing, by a conspicuous vagueness or lack of specification (the Gricean maxim of Manner[1]), and by unnecessary modification, for example, the frequent use of “some” (55, 57, 61, 62, 66, 67).

A related lack of focus features in several segments, some rendered fragmentary by misuse of locutions like “for instance,” where the topic simply is not provided (67). Or consider the use of contrast below. (And notice how Scalapino’s rimes unify her lines into a cadence that highlights the final, clinical moment.)

Young females will often compare

their surprise

to the time

when they first became aware

that they were able to suck the fluid out of the male’s organ. (63)

One wants to infer what the girls’ new surprise amounts to, but the gap left by the unstated topic can’t be bridged. So while the behavior she’d document is odd and at issue, so is this pretend distance at issue. Or better, that distance is self-reflexive, making the observer, as in Whalen’s text, the object of observation.

Sentence construction and coherence are major issues with “This eating and walking at the same time is associated all right,” problems that reappear in subsequent books. The poem is composed of 35 segments, four to five lines each, as a running commentary on daily events. We’re forced to guess the context, for while the speaker (I’ll assume it’s a woman) does reiterate concerns and establishes a discernable presence, the linkage between topics is a special problem, viewpoints are often contradictory, and her expressed concerns are curiously ambiguous.

It’s salient, then, that although we’re intended to combine recurrent thoughts—for example, comments on being employed, the weather, having money, worries about ethical action and the afterlife—these concerns are as obviously set ajar in nonsensical ways. Here’s an instance:

I ate and then if I go out anywhere when the weather is sultry as

if it were

the beginning of a monsoon

and I am going to communicate with someone who has died

I will have to have a lot of money. (76)

One might iron this out, e.g., if I go out in sultry weather, I’ll need money, but to make it cohere is a mistake. The stem “[I] ate and” opens five such segments and, as the title suggests, is associated with walking. “Associate” provides a better approach, for topics more clearly link by unspoken associations. Note, above, her use of conjunctives “and then,” “when,” “as if,” “if” and “and.” These provide signs of continuity, although markedly ingenuine. That is, while the syntax portends to coherence—evident in repeated use of subordinate and coordinate conjunctions—the propositions are deliberately set askew.

The above verse is followed by a closely related segment:

I was unemployed and the social hierarchy operates even after we’ve


so I’ve

been more excited

wanted sex regularly. (77)

Being unemployed easily relates to having money (in the prior verse), and having died aligns with communicating with the dead. So again this portends to relationship, a misshapen causality, but why, otherwise than to wreck the mind? Noticeable here are references to time and to conditionality. In the poem, the conjunction “if” is used 27 times. That is because this speaker is preoccupied with explaining what she’s done, what she is doing, and what she will do (if she can), and we’re presented with past, present and future sometimes in a single sentence, for example, “We’re not related and I’d like him and he’d hated objects” (94). There are as well notable problems with predication (e.g. “jealousy is in plants” [92]). Scalapino speaks of these segments as forms, “psychic configurations,” as if from “inner turmoil” pressing against—perhaps disfigured by—“a surface that’s also inside,” producing “a kind of helpless conflict” (Foster 40). The obsessive concerns and reiterations, then, the abbreviated acausal linkages, the elliptical commentary, shifting use of tense, the repetition of “I’ve changed my mind” (three times), and the many hypotheticals (“I’d be angry”) all indicate that thought processes rather than utterances are in the foreground. These are interior monologues. Rimbaud’s disordering of the senses has become a disordering of the sentences.


But it would be odd to ascribe the illogicality to Scalapino, even though the writing resembles, by ellipsis, fragmentation, and grammatical shortcuts, someone talking to themselves—or to borrow Scalapino’s term, ventriloquism, Scalapino as other.

The preoccupations in the title piece of “Considering how exaggerated music is” relate to what Scalapino calls the “public world,” and here I’d single out a second set of features in order to bridge to her next book, that they were at the beach, and to conclude. The settings are of two sorts, public gatherings (parties, restaurants and beaches), and street scenes, points of transition, the speaker drifting through a downtown area into neighborhoods. “I wanted to be wholly transparent” that narrator states, and would consequently “tell people details of my activities,” though she never discloses why she shares herself in this way.

One gathers that perhaps she’s motivated by alienation—she retells of experience from a period when she withdrew from others and makes frequent reference to insincerity, social acceptance, “incestuous” group behavior, class, rejection and shaming, major themes for Scalapino. Her mood, when she’d “go out,” is elevated, yet her treatment of others decidedly impersonal. A notable aspect of those excursions is the foggy sense of progression. The diction suggests that fog located in how she focuses, for the speaker frequently uses of locutions like “I had the sense,” “it seemed,” “I felt,” “the feeling I had,” “the sense I had,” as if she was negotiating at a disadvantage, perhaps not knowing what her role is. There’s likely no formal plot, but there is development, for whereas initial sections function by disassociation, she gradually projects forward, indicated by increasing use of auxiliaries “might” and “should.” In some instances, the narrator also talks hypothetically as if sketching a play:

The sense I had of a man on the street was that he had a family yet was ambivalent toward the place or setting at that moment, an area where there were small businesses and restaurants, and not where he lives. There shouldn’t be anything sexy say; he should be in a normal state and have no sex actually occur then or around that time and then have it occur later. Have slower ability. (133)

This emergent “setting” provides an orienting sense of what should occur, according to how it seems, for the speaker projects a situation she’d have agency over. Inasmuch as Scalapino tracks “motions of mind,” the verse traces that bridging of interior to the outside; yet as a critique, she would dismantle the illusion that the two are separate (i.e. her alienation).

As suggested, related gestures occur in that they were at the beach, her second major collection, and I’d show briefly how voicing plays out there, if less overtly.[2] The title poem, for instance, opens by focusing on a recalled volley ball game between schoolgirls, Scalapino’s team getting “creamed”:

Playing ball—so it’s like paradise, not because it’s in the past, we’re on a field; we are creamed by the girls who get together on the other team.  They’re nubile, but in age they’re thirteen or so—so they’re strong.

My initial point is simply that this is biographical, and the passage functions as self-talk. The opposing girls are remarked as “nubile,” but all girls are the same age, “thirteen or so.” The speaker’s puberty is at issue—she’s “immature in age.” Second, tone proves crucial. After the above observation, there’s a parenthetical comment (dropping down one bar), and perspective and tone change:[3]

(No one knows each other, aligning according to race as it happens, the color of the girls, and our being creamed in the foreground—as part of it’s being that—the net is behind us).  (17)

Asides ordinarily involve a tonal marker, but this one also reveals an underlying structure, and Scalapino slides into a third tonal register in the passage following this, labeling that initial scene “a microcosm” and “so it was an instance of the main [public] world” but one of girls only. Collectively, such perspectives join with others in a deliberately incoherent sort of jigsaw, one that’s in flux, all pieces “groundless.”

In terms of my argument, another obvious feature is the layering of these perspectives, how Scalapino cinematically blends states of dream, waking and memory, as well as provides past, present and future in a single fabric, “seamlessly.” As a consequence, her speaker negotiates inner worlds of dream and the outer public world as a single event, by a singular kind of imagining. Several underlying conflicts push the poem onward and, as often occurs in Scalapino’s work, a series of violations follow: a mugging, a strike, a drunken transient thrown from a restaurant, two thefts, the speaker cheated in selling a car, offending a new boss (a lawyer no less), a riot, an arrest and court scene, and more.

There’s also continuing focus on the linkage between clauses and on predication. The poem is riddled with logical connectors, “therefore,” “because,” “for that reason,” “since,” “so that,” and they are brought to attention by their predominance and seemingly illogical use.[4] Semantic relations are scuttled, and there’s an endemic vagueness. But if I’m granted that her method is mimicry, it would be inaccurate to say Scalapino is impersonating someone “other” than herself—again, these are biographical incidents; the author’s subjectivity is the subject. Nor would it explain much to say she’s being facetious. But it would be odd to ascribe the illogicality to Scalapino, even though the writing resembles, by ellipsis, fragmentation, and grammatical shortcuts, someone talking to themselves—or to borrow Scalapino’s term, ventriloquism, Scalapino as other. What her connectors signal, rather, is that she’s making what Wilson and Sperber call “interpretive use” of those linkages, much as one does with metaphor, hyperbole and irony. That is, her use of causal links is interpretive rather than descriptive, not directly as thought but as “disassociated” from thought, “echoed” in Sperber and Wilson’s terms (138-9, 142-52), or for my purposes, detached from thought. The attitude expressed relates to their imaginative use, rather than to her beliefs.

One sees this tracking of mind most clearly in the “Chameleon Series,” at the conclusion to that they were at the beach, where the mind’s convolutions are manifestly in focus. In the opening verse, for instance, the speaker confides that

I think of the passers-by

in the vicinity as

not having that thought—of urinating outside

It was a warm afternoon

I was worn out—not because of them

though aware

of it then.  (65)

She opens by thinking back to “passers-by / in the vicinity,” imagining their not having thought to urinate in public—a social violation—though that negation presupposes that earlier she thought they had thought to urinate. She’s rethinks that. It’s a projection.
This series also makes conspicuous use of line breaks as indications of voice. In the second verse, note how the speaker guides intonation of “bourgeoisie” by line break (as well as rhythmically highlighting the formulaic “in the vicinity”):

A man—this is the bourgeoi-


as it happens

is going to the store in the vicinity,

the people who’d I’d thought had urinated

being there—my only afterwards having thought that they had done that.  (66)

When Scalapino reads this aloud, she halts at “bourgeoi- / sie,” to convey uncertainty, and therein “bourgeoisie” is hoisted into prominence, although that this speaker would label persons in this way tells us more about her than about them.[5] To label someone “bourgeois” isn’t a complement and bespeaks a social distance; she gives no supporting detail. That she “only afterwards” thought they’d urinated outside—not really a bourgeois trait, is it? especially in a group setting—is added abruptly to clarify exactly when that thought occurred. That is, it forms part of an explanation, part of her sorting through experience, Scalapino miming Scalapino.

In the third verse, she discloses herself as belonging to the bourgeoisie:

They were warm—my

walking by them

—This is—myself as well—the bourgeoisie

but with


being very depressed then

The feeling of depression coming from me.  (67)

The speaker notes that her depression is distinct from thoughts about the passers-by. Her concern after all is with its source. Mark as well a preoccupation with sequence, imagined as causal. The focus isn’t on statements per se, but on consequence, hence her mention of “and so I thought of them,” that is, she’s focused on modulations in how she perceives the situation, her iterations, her thoughts.

Whether or not anyone had urinated isn’t (of course?) made clear, because what motivates the poem is (at least in part) whether she can predicate an act or property to those passers-by that doesn’t also implicate herself, inner and outer.[6] Her thought of urinating outside becomes their thought of urinating, then it’s negated. Their being bourgeois is her being bourgeois, and their pleasure becomes her pleasure, consequently her thought of pending death later becomes their death, for in this context, the “they” is what creates her world, her thought, through the mechanics of social fabrication. The series is an instance, as Scalapino later wrote, of a syntax that “pairs one’s interior . . . with the outside social context that is creating it” in order to arrive at “the origin of interior and the origin of outside at once” (R-hu 64-5).

Safe to conclude, then, that the author assesses thought through her speakers, as distinct from “self,” a self able to reach a point of “no experience,” yet the texts are marked by dissociations, by distance from thought, hence the doubling effect. To state that differently: As with Whalen, the speaker’s inventions are under scrutiny, and Scalapino’s early narrators stand in as mimes to disclose those as inventions, a tracking and critique. To that point, she remarks, in her interview with Ed Foster, that one struggles “with the fact that the entire fabric of what one is seeing and writing is illusory, but is very focused in an attempt to understand the thing you’re observing” (Foster 34). The “dropping of that construct,” she notes of Whalen’s work, “would create a different history” (How Phenomena 136). Elsewhere, she mentions poets have “mutated and become ventriloquists who speak ‘inner’ unspoken ‘movements’ and various types of speech at the same time.” Such miming constitutes, she explains, both a demonstration of thought and of action (Public World 26, 56).

[1] That is, to avoid obscurity or ambiguity in conversation (27).

[2] In turning to that book let me add, as Scalapino’s work evolves, projects gain in scope, vocabulary changes, and the more obvious aspects of voice, the focus on conversation, say, drop away.

[3] These are clearly marked by tonal shifts when Scalapino reads this aloud (at the Ear Inn in 1984) and I speak to that performance—for the miming is vocal at base. This reading is online at Penn Sound at http://writing.upenn.edu/pennsound/x/Scalapino.php

[4] To that point, in a Segue Panel on “Language Poetry and the Body” in 2007, Scalapino spoke of how, in parts of that they were at the beach, she had widened the distance “between instigation and any aftereffect so we can see in reading there being no cause and effect” (2). She understands cause and effect as a form of cultural fabrication.

[5] Scalapino’s speakers are acutely sensitive to racial and social ranking, as her dislike of hierarchies (racial or otherwise) and comments on waitresses and the homeless attest. In the opening seven verses of “Chameleon Series,” the speaker uses of “bourgeoisie” and “bourgeois” sixteen times. In way, her third book, she likewise hyphenates “so-cial” and “con-vention” in telling ways, and often reads declaratives with a rising (interrogative) intonation, changing statements into questions.

[6] In what follows, when she mentions dying, death is projected onto a man seen entering a store. Then discussion shifts to “life coming apart,” and the effect that dissolution has on others— “that life / causes the other / lives / to come apart” (87) and “mine // coming apart—when—or because / theirs / does” (85).


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Foster, Edward. “Interview with Leslie Scalapino.” Talisman 8 (Spring 1992): 32- 41
Grice, Paul. Studies in the Way of Words. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1989.
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Perloff, Marjorie. Differentials: Poetry, Poetics, Pedagogy. Tuscaloosa: U of Alabama P,             2004.
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—. R-hu. Berkeley: Atelos, 2000.
—. that they were at the beach. San Francisco: North Point, 1985.
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Bruce Holsapple is a retired speech-language pathologist living in central New Mexico. He earned a PhD from SUNY Buffalo in 1991 and has published essays on William Carlos Williams, Charles Reznikoff, John Clarke, and Philip Whalen. He has published seven books of poetry, most recently Wayward Shadow. His book-length study of Williams’s poetry, The Birth of the Imagination, was published by the University of New Mexico in 2016.

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