Jun 28, 2010

Streaming / Reading Memorial to Leslie Scalapino

A series of commentaries by poets and writers honoring Scalapino's work

Leslie Loved Invasion of the Body Snatchers

(or, Note on her "Note on Secret-Life Writing"

in Dahlia's Iris / Secret Autobiography)

From Laura Hinton

New York City

I wanted to end this on-line memorial to Leslie writing about a work of art she loved – at this end of the first month of her death.

“This note may be read at the beginning, middle, or end of the text,” I say, borrowing entirely from Leslie, in her “Note on Secret-Life Writing” – that “note” which “begins” (or ends?) her multi-genre book, entitled, Dahlia’s Iris / Secret Autobiography.

In her essay on Leslie’s work, “Figuring Out," Lyn Hejinian suggests that Leslie Scalapino loved the film Invasion of the Body Snatchers – the 1978 remake of the 1956 film, staring Donald Sutherland. Having assigned herself the task of discussing Leslie’s writing as “motion-figure,” and doing so in the context of a discussion of an entirely different motion-picture film so that she may study what Leslie herself wrote (in Deer Night) is a “physiological-conceptual tracking (of ) that is reoccurrence” and “a particular schism / gyration of ‘the inside of the inside’ being ‘the outside of the outside’ (at once)” -- Hejinian nevertheless mentions the importance of Invasion of the Body Snatchers to Leslie. It is important, she says, to the text of Leslie’s “Secret Autobiography.” And she writes: “As Scalapino has told me,” Invasion of the Body Snatchers was “one of her favorite films.”

What Lyn Hejinian learns from this use of a different film (Herzog’s The Mystery of Kaspar Hauser), in a discussion of Deer Night, is that “civilization (culture, the social) is full of pitfalls, and that landscape is not mere background but is itself the shape / gyration of what happens in it.” But she well could have used Invasion of the Body Snatchers as focal-visual reference instead. It certainly influences -- and perhaps structures -- the “detective novel” called “Dahlia’s Iris,” into which “Secret Autobiography” is enfolded. (They are published together, same volume.) And “detection” in "Secret Autobiography," like the film Invasion of the Body Snatchers from 1978, becomes a conceptual-discovery of what constitutes American democracy – and perhaps society at large.

What “Secret Autobiography” “discovers” is that American democracy is a reversal / duplicate of itself. This concept mirrors the blooming alien flower pods in the 1978 "Body Snatching" film. Democracy forces “self” to undergo a transformation. But that “transformation” as “duplication” is in fact not a movement but a reversal – it is, therefore, a sameness, a kind of fetishized version of change. The “self” is or has been sucked out by the “other” / aliens / non-human "plants." Tradition, society, and the “masses” have thus inverted the very principle of cooperative social living. However, Scalapino would never have said that democracy is a sham. What she does say is that it is an image of an image, and a reversal of what it claims to be:

I’m viewing Invasion of the Body Snatchers as an inverted image of the self in the U.S. (the self as an ‘original appearance only,’ limited and fixed, which continues to appear the same by being utterly destroyed as duplication).


In her “Note,” she then critiques the idea that movement, or “transformation,” is in of itself radical – and perhaps that the so-called mobile “freedom” allowed by democracy is in fact a duplication effect that absorbs any authentic being – like so many flower pods. We recall that this is what happens in the film. While the film’s narrative action is set in the streets, homes, and bureaucracies of San Francisco, it is an “alien nature” that invades. In the 1956 black and white film, also a fascinating movie, the “pods” are not clearly plants but identified with an alien “sea.” In the 1978 film, the pods, however, are clearly natural organisms that grow and “invade” their now-urban surroundings -- and humans -- with plant-like filaments and tentacles that attach to the subject / human they wish to absorb and then colonize, destroy. This “nature” therefore may transform but it also destroys the “original” body, which becomes a displacement, a simulacrum – one devoid of human emotion, feeling, mind, and spiritual will.

Donald Sutherland in the 1978 film

Like the 1956 movie, there is of course the requisite Hollywood heterosexual “love interest” in the 1978 version that Leslie apparently favored. The protagonist is a man in love with a distant – but soon to become (temporarily) “close” – woman. Then, her body is invaded, “snatched,” because (in both versions) the man steps away from her – however momentarily and in order to protect her from the Snatchers. He fails in his job as male protector and body guard, fails in his role as knight errant defending the “weakness” of “natural” femininity. And when she becomes the robotic “snatcher” herself, this male protagonist immediately repudiates “her.” But was she ever "her"? And did the claustrophobic male ever want the female tentacles to sink in to his skin to begin with? In both movies, “she” is the alien nature signifying danger to man. "She" threatens -- like all the Body Snatchers -- to invade and absorb his masculine reference, his male prowess.

Chase scene in the 1956 film

Before she is “snatched” away from their utopia relationship and its love scenes, there are many "chase" scenes: snatched bodies chasing the would-be snatched (but still “free”) souls. These chase scenes occur in both films. But the chase scenes in the 1978 film are visually very well executed, meant to be “read.” In one sequence, the male protagonist (played by Sutherland) is running with his girlfriend, who is wearing a red slinky shirt and those low ‘70’s “pump” heels. She has more trouble running, of course – not only because she is the “weaker female” – her weakens is exacerbated by the difference in the shoes. He is wearing a pair of conventional leather-lace up masculine-attire shoes. The camera level is shot at the level of the feet – emphasizing both her red sexy skirt and the difference in footwear. Sexual difference is further divided by the mass of feet closing in, following. The Body Snatchers are trying, in mass unidentifiable numbers, to catch and colonize the “free” human couple. But are they free – this “couple” of humans?

It is the horrific conclusion of the 1978 movie that leaves one most startled. The cold-war paranoia “chase” of the 1956 film has a relatively happy conclusion, when the male protagonist finally finds an “outside” to which he can tell his story -- one of invasion fear. He find a small-town American audience and its figures of authority -- a sheriff, an M.D. -- and these figures finally believe the narrative of his “Truth.” (They themselves visually witness a "pod.") But there is no “truth,” per se, in the 1978 film. We are all in America; we are the invaders. Every law enforcement agency, every city bureaucracy -- like the San Francisco mayor’s office and the police force -- is in it for the kill. The male protagonist has no chance of surviving the invasion of his masculine body. At this film's ambiguous end, it doesn’t matter whether or not he has been invaded, or is wearing the Body Snatcher’s mask instead. We, his viewing audience, realize that he is doomed like we are: to this world of duplication without thought, of activity without reason, of business as usual in the work-place without connection to other humans -- we are doomed to lives as he is without real agency or heart.

Going back to Leslie’s “Note” and its larger con-text: there is a ‘secret’ to the “Secret Autobiography,” itself a kind of “secret” – subliminal without being inside, interior, or within a psyche; it is a text that informs the larger context in which it is reproduced, Dahlia’s Iris as “detective novel” (a form that Scalapino assures us” is not based on realism but on repetition“). And so, too, are the alien flower pods in Invasion of the Body Snatchers film No. 2 “not based on realism but on repetition.” They are the factors of kinesthetic replication, displacement and dissolution. They are the forms of a social structuring that actively evacuates “being” by “duplicating,” and calls this “freedom.”

This becomes a statement about U.S. colonial activities, both internal-domestic racism and overseas acts of hegemony and violence. And it all comes down to literature and language, to “writings.” As Leslie notes in her “Note”:

In U.S. postcolonialist writings now, opposition to conceptual appropriation of other cultures is sometimes being articulated as: to confine to description of their tradition, not one’s interior practice.


Description of tradition” is the problem, not a solution. It leads to a kind of passive-aggressive flower (pod) war. Everything is an imitation of “real.” Not that there is an original to be had. But one must recognize the language structures of the “real,” nonetheless. In the detective novel proper, Leslie will go on to write:

Society is ‘only’ an orchid parasite fostering war. So outside in suffering, ‘no one’ ‘born as anything’ is suffering too. It’s everywhere here also.


She will also comment on the power of the pod – the internalized violence this parasitic creature of “nature” evokes:

The pod has no other expression ... The people in this process are killed. Introducing the pod-flowers, all the individuals are duplicated as crowd-form (as their individual forms).


She also continues to comment on post-colonial structures like that of racism:

Everywhere the transformation of others, their individual bodies’ appearance being duplicated ... Nothing outside of the result of the transformation is to exist. Obsession with being “normal.” Racism is the view that one’s appearance is the original.


There is no utopian field in Leslie’s writing. If the U.S. is particular in its modeling of duplication as subordinating act, her “Note” makes it clear that other countries – she mentions Tibet – also encode this current struggle. She writes of Tibet as

Quintessentially the modern state by being the inverted image: visibly contains all times, is occupied (by invaders and/or by itself) ....


She then concludes by saying:

I wrote this after traveling in Tibet.



As always in Scalapino’s writing, there is no outside versus inside – although that binarism finds its fascination in her lyric inversions. There is no outside to the inside “invasion” of colonialism, which is “material occupation” (17), but also structure, a text.

I wanted to write about a work of art Leslie loved.

This text may be read at the beginning, middle, or end.

But we will always be in the middle of reading Leslie’s writing.


Laura Hinton is the editor and main writer of Chant de la Sirene. She is a Professor of English at the City College of New York, and has been writing articles on Leslie Scalapino’s work since 1994. She will miss Leslie's creative presence in the world.

This note comes with great thanks to the poets who contributed to the Streaming / Reading Memorial Blog for Leslie: Cynthia Hogue, Ann Bogle, Millicent Borges Accardi, Karen An-hwei Lee, Elizabeth Frost, Barbara Henning, Charles Bernstein, Rachel Levitsky, Allison A. Hedge Coke, Joan Retallack -- and with special thanks to Lyn Hejinian, whose suggestion that we re-read Leslie's works prompted this blog project, as well as to Leslie's husband, Tom White, for his reprinted eulogy.

Jun 27, 2010

Streaming / Reading Memorial to Leslie Scalapino

A series of commentaries by poets and writers honoring Scalapino's work

Two poets' eulogies ...

She Doesn’t Belong

in a Past Tense

From Joan Retallack

New York City and Annandale-On-Hudson, New York

[This piece was presented at the St. Marks Memorial for Leslie.]


Extemporaneous preamble as now recalled:

Before I read my prepared text I want to say that death is a terrible deprivation. With all our sense of her continued presence, Leslie will not walk in the door and tell us what she thinks of all this. There will be no more wonderful dinner conversations with Leslie in all her gravitas and humor; no more wide-ranging discussions with Leslie and Tom about theater, dance, politics, science. There will not be the ongoing surprises of her extraordinary new work. This is an incontrovertible fact of death, a devastating one.


I’ve been thinking a lot about courage lately, and it’s relation to poetry. Leslie Scalapino is one of the most courageous poets, persons I’ve known. With her startlingly brilliant mind, her enormous capacity for love and joy in the midst of pain, her writing has been a form of life in which contingency, that is, reality in it’s shimmering of presence/absence, has been the filament of one of the most expansive poetics of our time.

I notice, as I’m writing this, that I’ve been bending my grammar to stay in the present tense. I simply don’t want to put Leslie in a past tense sentence. She doesn’t seem to belong there, certainly not as poet, any more than Gertrude Stein or John Cage, or others who have remained our continuous contemporaries. The loss can’t be denied, but the continued presence is as real as all of us here and elsewhere who are, in her words, not only subjects in charge of the projects of our lives, but also Objects in the Terrifying Tense / Longing from Taking Place. That, extraordinary poem of a title is of course, Leslie’s for the book of poetic prose she published in 1993. It’s a construction that I think must have come to her in the course of writing one of the essays in it. Those essays interweave commentary on contemporary writers, whose work Leslie values, with a strenuous quest to articulate the nature of the poetics in which she is continually exploring the relation of our flimsy subjectivities to our words. “If we ourselves are objects in the terrifying tense,” she writes, “our object reflects the object of oneself.”

The essay for Leslie is in part an act of self-reflexive textual eros, one which arouses consciousness, even fleeting self-knowledge, but only insofar as it touches "the rim of occurring." For Leslie this is never only about self. The poetic act, must be consummated in an agonistic struggle with a reality—poverty, war, institutional and political brutality, racism, gender binaries—that the poet must ultimately rescue from being subsumed in ideology. “Now not as ‘doctrine’, one can't cleave to or be 'masculine' 'tradition' which is non-existent as we're together floating with real individuals. This is the only love. There is no separation between essay and poetry.” Elsewhere, in Objects in the Terrifying Tense / Longing from Taking Place, in the section called “Writing on Rim,” Leslie makes clear that writing on the rim of occurrence is living on the rim of occurrence and that is the form of life she has chosen. Long quote:

In so far as I notice myself trying to change or avert reality by the writing, I had to recognize that motive, note where it’s occurring, which is fantasy.

Rather, the writing should be pushed to be itself // only concentration – in which is one’s fear, anger, etc.

Anger and distortions of clarity are of the nature of perceiving that reality. It can’t be otherwise.

The text eliminates subjective grounds.

There’s extreme pain without it.

One has to be fragile to be without protection in this reality. This eliminates the separation between writing and realistic rim.

Also to push ‘it’ to where even weariness causes it (no difference between weariness and the horizon and writing) ----to collapse on itself where it’s still, visibly flapping.

I wanted to get the writing to the point of being that still.


Yes “that still,” but in that stillness remains the echo of Leslie’s great humor: “still, visibly flapping.”


Joan Retallack is a poet, critic, and Bard College Humanities Professor. But she wants thisto read: Joan Retallack is a poet who has gained much illumination from Leslie Scalapino's poetry and friendship.


How many writers have penetrated my dreams?

-- For Leslie Scalapino

From Laynie Brown

Tucson, Arizona

[This eulogy was read at Naropa Institute.]


How many writers have penetrated my dreams?

Recollection, 1995, Seattle

It was a large box and Leslie had sent it to me and I did not know what or why however I was pleased. The box was as wide as my rib cage, antiquated and wooden with metal clasps. It was heavy. Someone looked at me curiously and said, this is what happens, as if I should have known. One receives so much from those writers beloved and the chest is represented physically by an object which stands for a territory that would have been otherwise hidden, but now appears.

Latticework and layered shelves containing jewels. They are precious and I am surprised, but I know they do not belong to me. This is just looking at what would have been otherwise hidden, a richness of possibility. Will I have to return it, I wondered? Of course, the chest will continue traveling in order to exist. It wasn’t real was it? Like the dream of walking into a bookstore and seeing a book one had written before one had ever written any book, not even a first book. But the intangible is as real as the unreal, considering manifestation as a result of the received and the imagined.

There was an elegance in the scrollwork on the chest. Something was dripping. I want to say eyes or jewels were dripping, as in a glance in a dark secreted place which gleams or reflects another light, when the source of the light is unknown but the bright spot appears all at once and surprisingly, rises up to meet one.


When I first began reading the work of Leslie Scalapino I was immediately struck and also stricken with the immediacy and fluidity of a vast assortment of images combined and probing into the nature of perception, desire, physicality, mindfulness and music. That’s a mouthful I couldn’t have articulated as I began reading, but accumulated more and more as I continued to read the many works which she wrote and which became increasingly over the years crucial to my development as a writer. Mostly when I think of her work I think of intensity. Heavily peopled scenes. How the image interacts, enters. Contrasting cultures and questions of movement, how the mind moves through the thick colorful collages of life-being. She presents them painted, photographed, interrupted, fragmented, but most of all incanted. Not sung but urgently and precisely placed, intoned.

With each new work more layers and locations emerge, yet her style of writing remains both recognizable and also evolving, sinuous, alive. I was struck by her willingness to examine the animal nature of being in many lights: sexual, vital, vulnerable, violent, failing. I admire the combination in her work of meditative inquiry and a non-sanitized view of the wide range of capabilities of human mind/acts.

I was struck with her generosity, her presence, her honesty, her concern for others.

I was struck with her momentum, her cadence, the way her prose was always scored upon the page musically, and as reader/performer of her own work by both her urgency and also gentleness.

Leslie was one of the first poets to publish my work, in an O books compilation, Subliminal Time. She was incredibly supportive and a careful reader always.

She was also adamant about correctness in how others perceived her poems. I recall once introducing her and her objecting to the way I had used a quotation of her work to express something I felt also reflected her vantage on writing. She got up on stage and said, “but that was a poem.” She was particular, confident, unafraid to express but also kind.

I’m struck with Leslie’s preoccupation with how time functions in terms of perceptions and how this leaves us with the comforting sense that she has not, will not ever desert us. Joan Retallac writes of this in a text written for a recent memorial for Leslie, that she is not to be put in the past tense. “She doesn’t seem to belong there, certainly not as poet, any more than Gertrude Stein or John Cage, or others who have remained our continuous contemporaries.” Such influence and inspiration given by a writer such as Leslie indelibly imprint. And though she is terribly missed and her loss is devastating her work remains and reminds us of the present and questions of what present is. She writes in “a woman whorled”:

“One’s physical body is disorder as movement is.”

“Practically, ‘present’ or ‘continuous’ can’t be disorder (not observed anyway) in that it resets itself to that level spirals.”

From Floats Horse-Floats or Horse-Flows



I walked up to the front door of Leslie and Tom’s house carrying orchids. What could I bring? I was told I could not bring dinner, could not bring anything. End of April, 2010, just a few weeks before Leslie’s passing. Still a chill in the air. Light rain. When I walked in I thrust the flowers forward but no one was taking them. We made our greetings. I did not know what to expect. She’d been in chemo. But she looked vibrant, her face clear her eyes bright, elegantly dressed. Work stacked everywhere and wanting to talk about work and finally she took the orchids from me and said, I didn’t want to take them because the way you walked in holding the orchids you looked like a painting. I didn’t want to interrupt the portrait she said, and we laughed and sat down with her fluffy white dog like snow at her feet.

Geometric shapes blew past, and artwork and cups of elixir and books blew past, proofs of her forthcoming book, The Dihedrons Gazelle-Dihedrals Zoom - recollections of poetic events, voices and unencumbered we talked into the night. Leslie and Tom so endeared toward each other, as if there were no difficulty.

How are you feeling, I ask, and do you want to talk about how it has been, in treatment? Her only frown. No, clearly no, one word was enough, was it awful or terrible, the word she used, or was it simpler, something like rough? Or was it only a glance, geometric shapes brushing past us representing thought forms? She would rather speak about work, recent readings and proofs of new books and books lovingly everywhere on every surface rich and orderly in a lovely house with time somewhat pleated.

In the last remaining light I had walked up the steps and later departed with every confidence for her full recovery. So bright, so bright, I told myself, no harm must ever touch such a strong and generous presence. Nothing so bright as the source of light glinting from the darkness, a smile in a doorway and parting and walking away from the house much later in the dark the night seemed incomprehensible, time passed or passing illusory.


Laynie Browne is the author of nine collections of poetry and one novel, including The Desires of Letters, The Scented Fox, and Daily Sonnets. She is an editor for Tarpaulin Sky and Trickhouse, and is one of the directors of the POG reading series in Tucson. She has taught at a number of poetry programs, including Naropa, and currently is developing an interdisciplinary writers-in-the-schools program at the University of Arizona.