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					    Delirious Hem                                               Tribute to Leslie Scalapino
Jena Osman                                                                     1 of 4

                                      Conversation

Leslie Scalapino’s support of emerging writers was resolute; this was clear in her
editorial work with O Books and in her teaching. At the memorial for Scalapino held at
the Poetry Project at St. Marks Church in June, I noticed how many younger writers took
to the microphone, all of whom had been clearly changed by Leslie’s company and
generosity: E. Tracy Grinnell, Laura Elrick, Judith Goldman, Sue Landers, Paolo
Javier… As I sat listening, I remembered how as a student in my 20s I had worked up the
courage to send Leslie an essay I had written on her book The Return of Painting. In it, I
made a clunky analogy between her poetry and puppets—both being “objects” that
require the reader/viewer to bring them to life. I quoted from Heinrich von Kleist’s essay-
dialogue “On the Marionette Theater”: “Since the puppeteer…when he holds his wire,
holds no other point in his power but this one, all other limbs are what they should be,
dead; they are only pendula that follow the pure law of gravitation…”

Her response to the essay was incredibly kind:
   “I found it very interesting and like the notion and your way of articulating it [The
   Return of Painting] of creating a dead text. So in response to your piece, I wrote the
   enclosed notes on your piece and my intention—though what’s going on in my book
   is I think somewhat different from my responses here…I’ve been writing a work
   called Defoe and I think the three pages of response may have to do with it as well.”

The pages of her response are at the end of this post; some of the lines did end up in
Defoe, which was published two years later. I remember being stunned that Scalapino—
whose work was so incredibly important to me—had thought to write back, much less
send me some of her new writing. I remember being struck by her phrase “dead text.” I
remember not really being able to connect her pages with what I had written in my essay,
because what she had written kept changing in my brain. Could it be that my mention of
Oskar Schlemmer’s dancer with “poles attached to limbs” became “the man with the
stump”? Did my use of the word “lifeless” really correspond with her use of the word
“dead”? I read it over and over, primarily as an instance of relation—almost the way I
would read a horoscope, sensing that no matter how random the predictions might seem,
as a game reader I could find the connective thread. More importantly, I took the letter
and the enclosed pages as an invitation to reply in kind, to take part in a conversation
through writing. I followed her model and wrote a poem called “Dead Text” in response
to her pages.1

Returning to that exchange now, Leslie’s phrase “dead text” continues to shift. It
describes that latent potential in each word to explode and crack its own surfaces. It
suggests an ability to trigger action through arrangement. Most importantly, it implies
life. Scalapino’s images are constantly in an echo-state, repeating with a difference. In
this way Scalapino makes the image organic—a growing redefinition—so that words (as
events) are living action rather than dead object.
    Delirious Hem                                                    Tribute to Leslie Scalapino
Jena Osman                                                           “Conversation,” 2 of 4

    She passes the bog pond with pads steam rising off on it. In the center a yellow
    mongrel swims. Its chin on the flat water it carries a black gardenia by its stem in
    mouth coming toward her. 2

    …

    Walking with a wedge of the sky hanging over the hot street, her own eyes are without
    lids and rows of thin yellow mongrels are coming toward the open lidless rims. Their
    trotting swaying flanks are on the side of the other thin yellow side (are the side), and
    the center thin yellow mongrel coming to her has a black gardenia in mouth. They
    flicker straight to her with the black gardenia swimming that’s in the sides of one’s
    mouth.

    …

    The pack of yellow mongrels rounding the corner in a fan. They sweep in their rows
    turning as one phalanx. The thin yellow flanks move and the black gardenia by the
    stem in the mouth of one which she’d seen the one time.

    …

    The black gardenia in the mouth of the running dog is the inner man. it seems. as it is
    shallow, which is this loop.


In the years that followed our initial exchange, Leslie continued to generously send me
parts of her works in progress; I wish I could have held up my end of the dialogue and
answered all of her writing with writing of my own in an infinite conversational loop.
Instead, I keep looping back to her work, the living actions. Scalapino’s writing is always
in conversation—with “external”/topical events, with dreams, with the words and works
of others, with previous books she herself has written. The connectivity in her poems is
urgent, a necessary exchange and relation, a map of thought changing as it
persists/resists/insists in time.



Scalapino’s “three pages of response”:

         I like it that this which is life is dead. It’s crushed and being held still, the mind is
in it – because what’s real has to be suppressed for it to continue.
         Life isn’t dead, but the mind produces actions that are not from memory – so what
is the relation between actions and life and anything.
         So this has to be only stilled, for it to continue.
         The man with stump for arm rushes forward. He has forgotten, because his mind
constructs the action before. The flesh isn’t existing on him, in that space (of the cut
limb), yet the mind produces it (physically) separate from what’s not existing.
    Delirious Hem                                                 Tribute to Leslie Scalapino
Jena Osman                                                        “Conversation,” 3 of 4

         It’s born with a sense of the whole, whether or not that exists.
         It’s not that which is not existing either.
         His running forward doesn’t exist.
         His visible and invisible cut flesh is abutted to events that occur ‘really’.
         That’s bliss, in effect. In regard to producing which, one has no choice.
         A wave of police with metal visors and shields move forward in a sheet in the
street. This is in Korea. They are in the way of the swatches of fire bombs (bottles which
explode) thrown, holding their shields as they press forward marching.
         They were trying to force the president to carry out reforms, the contingent of
society which had arisen.
         They were out in the street, and a ball of fire would erupt ahead. The police, older,
squat, dogging them pushed forward close together.
         If (this) is entirely still, when that is real, it quiets it to release it.
         Which one? So it’s dead.
         The man with the stump feels that limb which doesn’t exist; he feels it not from
memory but as present-time. (so ‘life’ is dead)
         He actually feels pain in that flesh, which isn’t existing, and it takes a position in
space where it would usually be.
         One produces sound.
         Before one wakes.
         He’s running and is beaten. That’s why he’s in bliss.
         How did this occur before waking. As the child who’s born without a leg feels it,
and it exists in effect actually, it is produced at the same time as actions.
         The man with the stump for an arm unites actions with not existing, arising from
life being dead.
         The flesh which does exist feels no pain. it’s still there really.
         extended as a glittering, flapping trunk. wet from having run. He stops for a drink.
         The drops pour off of him, and down his chin. That’s interiority not arising from
memory.
         It can be in memory, but it’s in him.
         So memory no longer exists, not suppressed. in this.
         Ones actual actions are the same as what’s produced there. though they’re entirely
separate.
         I don’t know why this is.
         I was in the hospital lying in bed with an I.V. in me. It was nothing, they were just
going to put a shot in my neck by the spinal cord. One one side of me, someone was
being shaved for open heart surgery. On the other side of me, one had had kidney failure.
I was afraid, small, as if it were separate from me. inside. The ‘glittering yellow cord’ is
not producing memory. maybe it is.
         So this occurs before the taxi driving me home. linearly, not as memory, it would.
The woman driving was speaking on the radio to other women, they’re trying to locate a
woman who’d been dropped off at the Safeway. She wasn’t feeling so good that day. they
say.
         Memory producing this is suppressed. This is suppressed, here.
         Memory is separate from this. (this) makes life, so we’re not in it. (whatever it is)
         Dead is back there in what is that which is life. (thought dead actually exists)
    Delirious Hem                                                  Tribute to Leslie Scalapino
Jena Osman                                                         “Conversation,” 4 of 4

        Maybe I should have said So dead actually exists. to produce it.
        Seeing the relation of action that’s being produced inside to that war, is life itself.
or to what’s occurring ahead. that hasn’t been seen before.
        Trying to create a text that suppresses memory and suppresses producing, so that
life can occur in front unconnected. So it’s unconnected and is in its still existing and also
not existing flesh.
        This is a record, a report, of the man with a stump for an arm running.
Excruciating pain from where it was clubbed, it is a wet trunk flapping from running.
        after he’s run.
        He is not considering them. sips water.
        Wasn’t considering in running, so there’s none of it.




1
  I wrote this poem in May 1992, when the L.A. riots were thick in the air. The poem was
first published in Scalapino’s anthology Subliminal Time (O Books 1993). When it was
reprinted in my first collection The Character, I dedicated it to her. An online version can
be found here: http://epc.buffalo.edu/authors/osman/deadtext.html
2
 This and the following quotations are taken from Defoe (Sun & Moon, 1994), pages
173, 176, 181, 193.

				
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