A Nonlinear Conversation
What happens to a body that is invited to shingle itself without limits, a body that acts as an inexhaustible Jacob’s ladder, folding and unfolding into the next without ever being taken away? This is a body in constant witness of itself, which is saying, yes, I see you, go on. When we encounter such bodies, they remind us of the conversations we are always having with ourselves. This conversation is one of a nomadic contemporariness. A present comprised of an irretrievable past and future. These are bodies whose aim is to retrieve and author themselves through narrative, and these narratives spur a limitlessness, an expansiveness within the self.
Two such textual bodies are those of the writers Melissa Buzzeo and Renee Gladman. Both compose texts whose borders are transient, whose anti-narratives help the reader into a dislocated and liminal state of encounter. These borders include all edges of the page, the word, the reader, and the writer: each acts as a portal, as a door. Here, dislocation does not mean disengagement, but rather, being permeable and mutable as a mode of survival. It is in this state of engagement where transfusion occurs, where passage becomes possible, and where survival by extension is ensured through the witnessing of oneself.
Both Buzzeo and Gladman—either directly or indirectly—are writing through trauma, an irretrievability of the self in relation to space and time. It is in their ability to accurately represent the traumatized body as it recognizes its own parts that helps the reader realize his or her own ability to do the same. This is the transformative juncture where claustrophobic memory can become migratory. This is also where disjointed images and experiences can take shape within a history or within multiple histories. Buzzeo and Gladman’s writings explore the processes of storing and retrieving memory (their own actual or possible body-memories) and then construct a linguistic body that dislocates the writer and the reader so that a ductile body might be created: pliable, malleable, resilient, and buoyant.
Ductile and dislocate are not words that one might easily bridge to writing and reading. I was introduced to these terms in Bhanu Kapil’s class, Something Glitters on the Border at Night: a tooth?. On July 4, 2006, at Naropa University, Kapil handed our class an essay by writer, artist, and philosopher Manuel DeLanda, “Uniformity and Variability: An Essay in the Philosophy of Matter.” We were asked to define the word ductility. Before redefining the word, I read in Delanda’s essay,
Scientists had to stop viewing metals in static terms… the reason why ductile [metals] can resist being broken, has to do with the complex dynamic of spreading cracks…. A crack or fracture needs energy to spread through a material…. In metals, the mechanism seems to be based on certain defects or imperfections … called dislocations. Dislocations not only trap energy locally but moreover they are highly mobile and may be brought into existence in large quantities by the very concentrations of stress which tend to break a piece of material. … If populations of these line defects are free to move in a material, they will endow it with the capacity to yield locally without breaking.
I began thinking of the text as ductile, the body as ductile, the body as text, and so on, because, like the scientists of a few decades ago who had to stop viewing metals as stationary objects in order to understand the complexity of their metamorphoses from brittle to ductile, we, as readers and writers, must do the same with language. In an interview, Gladman described the space of her language: “I have this attachment to the idea that there’s all this potential—spatial or energetic—involved in how words are combined into sentences, and how the sentences are put together. They make this intense dynamic space which is the text block.” There is electricity in the tension of hinged writing, and immeasurable and attainable spaces that surround a block of prose as it searches its way toward the bottom of one page and onto the next.
While reading DeLanda, I envisioned a woman standing in front of a black mirror, her body on fire. From her neck, instead of a head, grew a bird of paradise. In the mirror I saw ductility re-defined and began to write: “the stress of color / in the lungs… mutation of a body dislocated / into marionette veined/ how this can bend with the / delicate stretching / and bridging of porous / reservoirs / there is always / the possibility / of splitting / the house.” The transmutation of metals from brittle and weak to ductile and strong through heating and cooling is parallel to the process of writing through trauma and into other bodies, a relationship to reading and writing found in DeLanda’s phrase, “dislocations… trap energy locally.” These places are compassless, characterized only by the “complex dynamic of spreading cracks.” It is their ability to language the dislocations that make Buzzeo and Gladman’s writing a viable place of dilation.
In Buzzeo’s What Began Us, the lines bend and fold into one another. It is a text and body saturated to the point of damage with stanzas that vary in their consistency between short blocks of justified prose and consciously broken poetic lines. This text is the dislocated event of the reader witnessing a character grasping at her own self. It is the process of an adult retrieving herself as a fifteen-year-old girl through unfocusable and ungraspable memories as they are trying to be recovered. The body of memories and the body of the girl only come into focus through the reader’s ability to witness and place him or herself within the fissures.
In Gladman’s writing, the reader is momentarily located in brief narratives as they enter and exit without any absolutes. Gladman’s, like Buzzeo’s, is a hybrid writing—and reading—space that inhabits the regenerative region between prose and poetry. Newcomer Can’t Swim is a series of seven prose gestures in which Gladman’s characters are temporarily lit with words in mid-action and on unreliable ground. Visually, Gladman’s writing varies. Some narratives occupy the entire page as a novel might, others appear in tight justified blocks like a prose poem, and some cling to one side of the page. All are composed of traumatized characters and places that refuse form while moving toward a definite place. Gladman briefly brings a time into focus and by leaving these histories unfulfilled she is inviting the reader to develop the draft. These places and characters are successful in their attempt to arrive past the traumatized point because the reader is able to continue the narrative.
It is because of the transitory state of Buzzeo and Gladman’s writing that ductility occurs in both the writer and the written and, by extension, the reader. This resiliency is possible because the fragmented narratives exist in the unlocatable and variable space of the dislocations, a space elastic and mapless. In What Began Us, Buzzeo writes, “Sentences that reframe themselves… They transfer from this hand / to that hand.” Gladman often provides a direction, but then takes it away or alters it severely. In Newcomer Can’t Swim, she writes, “It’s more than that time has gone on. It’s like I’m here in the wrong place: we were never here.” This constant re-creation allows for transfusion. Each time a sentence or border is encountered, something different might pass to the other side.
It was after reading DeLanda’s essay and while reading Buzzeo’s What Began Us and Gladman’s Newcomer Can’t Swim that I understood that these two women are creating bodies in which to exist and continue: sites of retrieval and departure. These anti-narratives are bodies made possible. The language and the shape of the lines in their work perform in ways similar to dislocations in metals. Directly accessing the brittle sites of trauma, their narratives rupture the stress of a buckled feeling and extend the bridge through and into multiple histories.
While interviewing Buzzeo and Gladman, I was able to talk with them about their processes of retrieving and transcribing. I began to not only hear conversations between their writing, but also between themselves and their writing. I often found that they were responding to or extending their own work. In the same way, my extensions could be different tomorrow or perhaps even moments after I have written them. They are never static, but migratory and spectral encounters of what it means to be linguistically ductile.
The Beginning: A Bridge
We begin with the face of a book: Buzzeo’s What Began Us. An image focuses through the gray; a bird’s wings flicker past the edge of the page. We are both above and below this bird. We can see its belly, and it can see us. The scene stills from a David Gatten film, The Great Art of Knowing. Yet there is an expectancy of movement in a thing stilled: We enter in temporary stasis, in a shape and time that has continued without us. The abandoned birds of Buzzeo’s first page become a twinning of bodies, of times, of what might be possible and imagined. Buzzeo moves fluidly from the image of birds doubling into the bodies of words pressing, “In the beating of these words against the others… Parting this letter from the inside.” And how do we tell now from then? How do we retrieve that which we have left behind and that which has left us behind? Buzzeo writes, “You sink into a place that continues.”
Asked about beginnings, Buzzeo answered, “It is very similar to palm reading. Palm reading to me is about retrieval. It’s about the idea that the other person has everything they need already. All the information is there, but the connective tissue is gone. Physically lifting something out through skin and then giving it language.” This is the imaginary border of skin and its porousness. What can pass depends upon the bridging of reservoirs. The dislocations bear witness, and we are able to move from here to there.
I asked Buzzeo, “What is the process of your body remembering its selves?” She answered,
My experience of fragmentation is so fragmented that it is not even selves but atmospheric emissions. I’m interested in creating different kinds of emotional states in my work, not mirroring or representing, but going farther than that. Some kind of strange amalgam of some past moment with a past moment or present moment and then it explodes into this other thing. It makes it possible to feel in new ways.
It is in the encounter of multiple times and presences that allow for this very thing to emerge in Buzzeo’s work; and it is because of her permissiveness, her willingness to not lead the images, that this explosion—or extension—occurs. The story becomes what we carry across the untranslatable. She writes, “To be / able to say I made a shape.”
Before I physically met Gladman, I met her through a small blue chapbook, Buzzeo’s city M, and through the silver emblem on the back cover, that of Leona, Gladman’s press. From there, I began reading all of her work that I could find, and something happened in meeting this way. While reading Buzzeo and Gladman’s work simultaneously, my own writing began to feel that it could be a more accurate representation of how I moved through the world. However, until reading DeLanda’s essay, I did not have a vocabulary to explain what was happening. DeLanda writes,
The dynamics of populations of dislocations are very closely related to the population dynamics of very different entities, such as molecules in a rhythmic chemical reaction, termites in a nest-building colony, and perhaps even human agents… a given population of interacting entities will tend to display similar collective behavior as long as there is some feedback in the interactions between, that is, the interactions must be nonlinear.
I began hearing conversations between Buzzeo’s work and Gladman’s. Although their stories were different, they seemed to be moving toward a similar place.
Meeting with Gladman, she looked past me to the bookshelf across from her desk, “Ask me a question and see if I can…” I asked her, “Where do you begin?” She said, “It’s this kind of, like a warmth that I feel. I begin with that feeling and also with, almost in every case, the first sentence just comes. It’s like an emergence, out of, out of a flood, a feeling.”
It is the potentiality of the word and of words together that becomes the ability to give scaffolding to a feeling, which begins the movement forward, and away from the static. Because Gladman’s words occupy a transcendental ground, they have the ability to progress, to turn outward from shutting. In Newcomer Can’t Swim she writes, “The word. It weighs heavy on my tongue, this weight my only possession.”
Gladman described how this warmth waits and that she allows it to wait, as if “there is a feeling of something that’s kind of growing somewhere.” This image came to me as a site of intensity: a lit bronze color in a pocket of skin. Without having ever read DeLanda’s essay, Gladman was describing the site of trapped energy in metal, and furthermore, in bodies before dislocation occurs. In Newcomer Can’t Swim, Gladman writes, “I’ve become the zone / itself, the hole to pass through.” First Gladman houses the concentrated site of energy and then it extends into her writing. Through further extension, the reader becomes this site as well.
In both What Began Us and Newcomer Can’t Swim, there are multiple sites of entrance; the beginnings and endings have been frayed so that where one reader might enter, another might exit. This is knitting the moebius sites of dislocation in a hybrid—and ductile—fiction. This allows for untold histories to be constructed at each dislocated site. What Began Us is written as a series of nineteen prints, each one a shivered extension into a fifteen-year-old girl’s body-memory. Buzzeo constructs a space for the characters and reader to exist in multiple times and desires at once, and she encourages the body to remember and want in this way. Her work comes into and out of focus for me, each scene folding into the next without ever dissolving. It’s because of this that the reader can enter anywhere and continue it themselves or accordion it in. It is in this way that the static spaces in traumatic memory are able to link and dislocate without permanently welding together. It is as if her word-shapes are underwater like a print focusing as the liquid shifts; these are prints that will never move to the stop bath. It is not necessary for histories to be whole and intact, only that they are witnessed and extended. The reader has the ability to continue the gesture on his or her own because the image is blurred. Buzzeo tells us, “You write. As the room takes shape.”
Because of the nature of Buzzeo’s work and its ability to dislocate, it is important to see what helped to make these dislocations active during the writing of What Began Us. Buzzeo described herself as an MFA student at the University of Iowa, reading Jeanne Hyvrard and Marguerite Duras, then seeing Peggy Ahwesh’s, Martina’s Playhouse, which was literally buried underground before being viewed. Buzzeo explained that she was thinking about language and relationship ideas: “The movie helped me to figure out a kind of body attachment to [the ideas]. What does it mean to bury something in the ground and then take it out?” I imagined a body buried, a memory collapsed and I asked myself: What will decompose and what happens to our ability to see once seeing has contracted? To revive through narrative, to shutter a time into existing. Buzzeo writes, “And yet the cohesion of a body as / it comes into language… As I / dream your body instead of my own.”
We are never fully introduced into Gladman’s narratives; rather, we are merely offered a glimpse or a fragment of possible existences, quickly taken away. Only the first and last lines of the text mark these entrances and exits as these places are not stationary and never truly begin and end. One of Gladman’s characters describes these sites in Newcomer Can’t Swim: “a funnel / to the next place. The zone / place of answers, in which to stand / still is impossible. So I loop / around, I establish a pattern. It / goes.” These are places concerned with passage; these are humans in search and in transit. Another character says, “I have the map you drew in my back pocket, but I want to get to you without using the map.” When stepping into Gladman’s narratives, our compass becomes the desire to find that for which we are in search. Sometimes it is a person, an answer, or a violin that is really a cello; all of these things can be looked at as a state in which to rest.
Gladman describes her narratives and cities, saying, “There’s this sense of rubble: parts of it are destroyed but they actually aren’t. There’s this way of having to deal with rubble without there actually being any rubble there.” We—as writers, characters, and readers—continue through cities, through countries, through bodies, through rooms, and these are the things we carry with and around us. How does one move through static; how does one see past the rubble? It is in the gesture of offering the reader a seemingly incomplete city that allows the street to be found.
I asked, “What is the ritual of retrieving these sorts of memories?” Gladman answered:
They may be memories, but they’re not mine. I think they’re eruptions or possible narratives. Something happens when I’m in the space of writing where the words themselves are projecting a kind of narrative. And so, once I open up to the narrative, or take interest, it just comes. It feels like it’s something shedding from what it means to be a person in the world; what it means to move through space and hear language; and to think these, these things fall away from those experiences, which somehow become the narratives I write. It’s coming out of some aliveness that language has.
Both the spaces of language and languagelessness act as catalysts for engagement in the same way heating and cooling a metal can make it more ductile or tough. Similarly in DeLanda’s essay, he quotes Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari’s A Thousand Plateaus: “What metal and metallurgy bring to light is a life proper to matter, a vital state of matter as such, a material vitalism that doubtlessly exists everywhere but is ordinarily hidden or covered, rendered unrecognizable.… Metallurgy is the consciousness or thought of the matter-flow.” While speaking with Gladman, it became natural to exchange the words metal and metallurgy for words and language.
Extending the Body
While reading DeLanda’s essay in tandem with Buzzeo and Gladman’s writing, I began to read more scientifically about the traumatized body. Specifically, what happens to that body once it allows itself or is given the opportunity to breathe into that which has been silenced or fractioned? One author that Buzzeo read while writing What Began Us was Shoshana Felman, whose book, Testimony: Crises of Witnessing in Literature, Psychoanalysis, and History—a collaborative work with Dori Laub—explores necessary acts of testimony, bearing witness, and remembering. Both Felman and Laub explore these ideas in relation to reading and writing. Laub explains that the retrieval of something buried can only occur when the speaker’s story is witnessed:
Trauma precludes its registration; the observing and recording mechanisms of the human mind are temporarily knocked out, malfunction. The victim’s narrative—the very process of bearing witness to massive trauma—does indeed begin with someone who testifies to an absence. The trauma… has not been truly witnessed yet… The emergence of the narrative which is being listened to—and heard—is, therefore, the process and the place wherein the cognizance, the “knowing” of the event is given birth to.
Both Buzzeo and Gladman expressed similar rituals around why and how they write. Buzzeo said, “Longing… getting closer through so much absence.” Gladman mirrored her, “A lot of it was coming out of loneliness.” Writing through absence and into language acts as a witness because it suggests the presence of a reader. After dislocations exist, the once traumatized site becomes a text of reparation.
In What Began Us, we witness the body’s retrieval of that which has been absorbed. We are presented with the serrated memory of a girl in and out of time in a written body and in a photograph, “What is possible to find in a drawer.” Remembering becomes temporarily regenerated by resemblance. Language as witness is the result of this longing: the desire to regenerate what is absent. Buzzeo writes, “The unan- / nounced retrieval… To reconceive. / To reletter. / To recollect: this contingent that made letters possible.”
Because of Buzzeo’s ability to recollect in What Began Us, the reader remembers that his or her own body is also a possible site of regeneration and extension. Laub explains:
By extension, the listener of the trauma comes to be a participant and a co-owner of the traumatic event… The listener… partakes of the struggle of the victim with the memories and residues of his or her traumatic past… The listener… has to be at the same time a witness to himself. It is the only way, through his simultaneous awareness of the continuous flow of those inner hazards, both in the trauma witness and in himself, that he can become the enabler of the testimony.
In our interview, Buzzeo said, “I think that reading is very bodily. The reader makes me feel really safe while I’m writing. I love the idea of the text being completed by the reader.”
With Buzzeo, I tried to explain my personal differentiation between the states dislocated and disengaged. I said to her, “I grew up feeling very disengaged from this body. To look at it instead as dislocated feels much more accurate.” Buzzeo answered, “I definitely agree with you. I feel like I didn’t understand that for years and years and years and years. I think that areas of numbness or flatness—all those areas of dislocation—are because of so much feeling.” It is in the areas of “so much feeling,” and in Gladman’s “feeling of something that’s kind of growing somewhere,” that the dislocations have the potential to split, bend, and become. Buzzeo describes a similar location in What Began Us: “The ground and lungs that support the house… You are without area.”
There is something striking in where and how Gladman chooses to locate her narratives on the page. Gladman said to me, “The parts that are left blank may be due to a lack of knowledge or fragmentation. To feel that kind of electric dynamism.” The reader experiences the silent tension of the surrounding space differently each time. Maurice Blanchot describes these spaces in The Writing of the Disaster, “It is not you who will speak; let the disaster speak in you, even if it be by your forgetfulness or silence.” Gladman’s centered text blocks are active sites of dislocation. We are able to place a bridge here or, further, here.
The white space surrounding both Buzzeo and Gladman’s texts is as much a part of the dislocating process as the words themselves. These are the untranslatable areas: that which could not pass on their own and could not be carried across. Blanchot describes disaster or trauma as that which threatens to dissolve by being untranslatable,
Silence is perhaps a word, a paradoxical word, the silence of the word silence, yet surely we feel that it is linked to the cry, the voiceless cry, which breaks with all utterances, which is addressed to no one and which no one receives, the cry that lapses and decries. Like writing… the cry tends to exceed all language, even if it lends itself to recuperations as language effect. It is both sudden and patient; it has the suddenness of the interminable torment, which is always over already. The patience of the cry: it does not simply come to a halt, reduced to nonsense, yet it does remain outside of sense—a meaning infinitely suspended, decried, decipherable—indecipherable.
The space surrounding Gladman’s narratives—whether a shortened block of prose that does not fill the page or wider margins for certain narratives—acts as Blanchot’s silence: the cry that has not yet been traveled or that has been forgotten.
In these silent spaces, there is also a sense of decay, of water, and of erosion as if this white space threatens to slowly eat word by word until all that is left is the white skin of the page. There is a sense of movement in both directions, as if the next time you are on page 57 of Newcomer Can’t Swim, instead of beginning with: “On that crowded street," it might begin, “Are you lost?”
I asked Gladman, “What kind of relationship do you see between your body, your writing and the reader?” Gladman answered, “I want there to be a porous relationship between the reader and the text. This kind of cross-infection.” Gladman writes, “And bodies / have been gathering because this / one needed to lean on that one.”
Buzzeo's space and silence takes on shape in a slightly different way. In What Began Us, sentences come into and out of focus while the white space patiently throbs as if swallowing that which is too painful to remember. The fragments of sentences are placed in such a way on the page—and written with such nomadic language—that the reader feels as if holding the page at another angle might hologramically reveal what is concealed. Laub further explains:
The process of witnessing is itself being witnessed… the narrator, and myself as listener, alternate between moving closer and then retreating from the experience.… The traumatic experience has normally long been submerged and has become distorted in its submersion.… Realizing its dimensions becomes a process that demands retreat.
In What Began Us, it is as if the narrator translates her memories through a curtain of gauze or is looking up while being underwater. Buzzeo writes, “You try to slip the smudge to sing the smudge.”
The Ductile Body
I asked Buzzeo if writing helps her body to feel more ductile, and therefore, more durable. She told me,
Definitely the body of the writing. I feel like that’s a huge question for me. I think those kinds of gestures make it more possible for me to live. And in a way, you live in a body, so that makes it more possible, but I don’t think it makes me healthier as a person. I think it’s a question that I still don’t know: what the effect of writing is on your body. To me, I think it’s probably the only choice.
Buzzeo writes, “To exist just in this stretching. / This longing, liminal. / The tiny strip that might evaporate.” This stretching is how we know we are alive.
I began to understand something I had always instinctively known: not only why certain people are drawn to the rituals of reading and writing, but also why they must eventually return. These are gestures of endurance and explication; however, without the dislocative qualities of certain narratives, something would certainly break. Buzzeo told me, "My hair fell out before I went to Iowa and continued falling out the whole time I was writing. I wasn't in the healthiest state. Maybe it was a sign that I was becoming healthier." There was a transfusion occurring: Buzzeo's physical dislocations entered the space of the text, and eventually the dislocative text entered the space of the reader. This enables the desire of the reader to hold the text, continue it, and make a gesture that might mean, yes, I hear you, it's going to be alright. Buzzeo continued, “I always wanted to have books published so that I could sleep with them in bed; it didn’t work out like that. That’s a very simple relationship.”
In Buzzeo’s work, she is both, as Laub explains, "the enabler of the testimony—the one who triggers its initiation—as well as the guardian of its process and of its momentum.” Buzzeo writes, "A woman / broken into many women… A woman who is left to wash her / own hands.” During her time in Iowa, Buzzeo was a practitioner of yoga and reiki. Buzzeo described reiki as “energy work”: "The person places their hands over you and the longer she leaves it, the more I could feel. I would have visions." Wordless bodywork and the body becoming physically more ductile enabling the energy to extend beyond the body. The body is the site where both the writer and the reader begin, they meet and continue on through language. Buzzeo writes, "A vessel you say. / A vessel, we say. You are a shutter that closes and opens. At / mouth.”
I asked Gladman what her relationship is between her body and her writing, she answered, “My body is not present to me because maybe I believe in the disjuncture between the mind and the body. My work is a kind of body; it’s one that is safer than the actual body. I have this thing where I don’t want to be visible, which I guess is not a good thing to want, but writing allows me to be visible in a way that I can control.”
To exit to enter
Both Buzzeo’s and Gladman’s works continue so that the reader can connect anything they have or ever will write. Buzzeo writes, “To walk in a room in order to divide.” A body that helps our own bodies becomes a more possible place inside of which to continue. Gladman explains, “Whatever the past is, however one chooses to settle it, its accumulation is undeniable.” We must extend the bridge.
Through the invitation to hinge our own bodies, as readers and at the edge of an open space, we are able to dislocate our selves continuously. Here, the knitting ceaselessly begins. Though both texts are concerned with traumatized characters and times, it is through the gesture of reading and writing that multiple bodies are able to extend themselves. The unfolding is spurred so that the dislocations become illimitable.
Blanchot, Maurice. Smock, Ann (trans). The Writing of the Disaster. Lincoln, Nebraska: University of Nebraska, 1986.
Buzzeo, Melissa. Personal Interview. 15 Sept. 2007.
Buzzeo, Melissa. What Began Us. Providence, Rhode Island: Leon Works, 2007.
DeLanda, Manuel. Uniformity and Variability: An Essay in the Philosophy of Matter. Presented at Doors of Perception 3: On Matter Conference, Amsterdam, Holland: Netherlands Design Institute, 1995.
Felman, Shoshana and Dori Laub. Testimony: Crises of Witnessing in Literature, Psychoanalysis and History. New York: Routledge, 1991.
Gladman, Renee. Personal Interview. 18 Sept. 2007.
Gladman, Renee. Newcomer Can’t Swim. Berkeley, California: Kelsey Street Press, 2007.