"No Other Sentence Could Have Followed but This": Ron Silliman's Tjanting -- Thomas Fink

Ron Silliman wrote Tjanting between June 1977 and March 1980, and the Figures (Great Barrington, Massachusetts) published it in 1981. At that time, Language Writing, of which Silliman has been a major exemplar, was poised to become well known among academics and literati outside its circle in the U.S. poetry scene. By 2002, when Salt Publishing (Applecross, Western Australia and Cambridge, United Kingdom) reissued the book, Language Writers had gained a great deal of notoriety (positive and negative) in the poetry mainstream and significant acceptance from a substantial group of academic cultural critics and theorists. Salt has done a considerable service in reprinting a crucially important Language text that many who imagine themselves well versed in Language Writing may not have read.

Following the progression of the Fibonacci number system in the composition of Tjanting, Silliman writes a 19-paragraph work spanning almost 200 pages with the following number of sentences--and some of these sentences are fragments-- in each paragraph: 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55, 89, 144, 233, 377, 610, 987, 1597, 2584, 4181. Whereas the first eight paragraphs are on the first page (15), the nineteenth paragraph spans 79 pages, nearly 42% of the whole. If "going on too long will give rise to a whole new sense of rhythm" (154), Sėlliman's use of incredibly long paragraphs creates a rhythm in which an ongoing flux submerges awareness of the work's form, except when a paragraph happens, suddenly, to end, and another begins. Aesthetic structure cannot rid itself of the arbitrary in a bid for "organic form," and the text's formal extremity underlines this. The nineteenth paragraph's first sentence is: "What makes this the last paragraph?" (125); the answer is not forthcoming.

The apparent subject matter, tone, and rhetorical function of Tjanting 's sentences are extremely varied. There are descriptions of physical pressures, pains, and pleasures in the course of everyday life, depiction of objects in relation to other objects, abstract political and philosophical assertions, qualifications, or demystifcations, self-referential remarks, and social observations that are somehow both startling and obvious ("Wallpaper demonstrates peeling" [32]; "Motel art must not be subject to the desirability of theft" [179]). The text is full of snippets of ordinary conversation ("Well, I hope your grandmother comes thru" [156]), language tripping over itself ("Support epilepsy" [182]), and brief news stories--like "the Vatican Secretary of State" entering the newly installed pope John Paul I's "chambers" in 1978 and performing a ritual to ascertain that the pope has died (124). There are scattered accounts of a new love relationship and many other observations of psychological nuances, tweaking of cliches (reminiscent of New York School poets), derangements of grammar and syntax to cast previously determinate sentences in palpably indeterminate ways (reminiscent of other Language Poets), and surreal images that jolt conventional understanding ("The baby is on duty" [169]). And so on.

Here, as in earlier twentieth century American long poems, "Improv echoes epic" (131): accretion of diverse linguistic and perceptual "experiences" resembles the "epic" in scale and intensity of focus: " . . . one's capacity in the face of the new to pay attention has no limit" (120). The reader may invest the imaginative, critical act of "paying attention"--at one point equated with "love" (126)-with sufficiently heroic stature. Is the book, as one fragmentary sentence has it, "A list of axioms & observations" (119), and should we believe the remark: "Notice how I trust axioms" (120)? What Silliman probably "trusts" is neither axioms themselves nor the "truth" of observations, but the ability of both to modify, challenge, recontextualize, at times support, and displace one another in the process of thinking poetically: "Not this./ What then?/ I started over and over. Not this" (15); "There are no simple statements: everything has to be modified (I didn't say that)" (113).

Many sentences in Tjanting include the word "sentence," and often Silliman exploits the pun linking linguistic and legal references: "Will I have time to think this sentence out?" (74). One logical answer, that a prison sentence involves "time" for thinking, collides with another, that the compositional process may be too rapid to allow for sufficient thought. Also, "Sentences legislate the possibility of content" (189) points to ways in which linguistic structures sanction inclusions and exclusions that tend to "police" or "sentence" the thought of language-users. More importantly, the connection or lack of it between sentences is a crucial matter in this text: "Now we proceed without transition to the next sentence" (173). But does a reader's awareness of the deletion of transitions? When Silliman writes, "That sentences would connect is leap of fate" (76), I am reminded of both the reader's "faith" in connection and the element of chance in associative reading, in how "a connection between sentences is projected" (190), not inherent. Seeking connection, "The mind always reduces the distance between two sentences toward a minimum limit" (198), even if "the function of this form" in the text "is to contain the reading within the sentence" (133). One powerful sentence simultaneously evokes disjunction and sinisterly hidden connection: "These sentences 'sit' beside one another, with no more connection than stories in the paper" (150). The irony is that left critical thinking often locates connections between seemingly unrelated "stories" in the disclosure of hidden power relations.

I would argue that arriving at a connection between sentences "seated" next to one another in Tjanting is often much harder than finding links between newspaper stories. If the word "meanings" here signifies contextual affinities between sentences, "Words edge up to align with probable meanings" (71), and "Meanings edge up to align with probable words" (170) without even relative certainty, and the reader frequently experiences "the point at which words jettison meaning" (91). Here is an eleven-sentence passage from the seventeenth paragraph, chosen because I can, with difficulty, forge some tentative, tenuous links:

Even on the day they move I can hear them shouting. You cld hear the wind at the garbage cans. Small military jets shook the sky. She wrappt the tacky terrycloth robe about her. Thunderbird bottles at the base of the flagpole. Green handled broom with a yellow brush. Words hung flat on the tongue. A class of events that are simultaneous forms a space. Pill floats in water down the throat. Sitting in the doorway of the liquor store, drinking up. Think of salads as dessert. (73)
References to sounds that each inhabit a social sphere connect the first three sentences. A sign of domestic disharmony that the close proximity of urban living makes intrusive evokes considerably more psychological tension than the extremely ordinary interaction between the natural force of wind and "garbage cans," but it evokes a great deal less tension than the "jets," which, depending on perspective, are either potentially menacing or protective. The fourth sentence might depict the robe-wearers' (unconscious?) reaction to the jets' threatening sound, or an example of self-protection in general, or a further example of the 'tackiness" of the shouters in the first sentence. The class-based evaluation of the robe's tackiness (whether taken literally or mouthed ironically) can be connected to the perception of Thunderbird as a low-class wine in the next sentence or to a patriot's view of an indecorous desecration of the area surrounding the flag's nobility. On the other hand, the bottle lineup can be read as a fitting, humorous protest against the kind of adventurist "patriotism" that has encouraged "military jets" to "shake" other countries' skies.

The sixth sentence is also open to ambiguity: on the one hand, it seems to convey, as neutrally as possible, a domestic image like the "terrycloth robe," but then again, the tropological aura of "broom" might refer to what should be tidied up about the trouble represented in previous sentences. The broom could be seen, not as sweeping, but as stationary, "hanging," and this provides an especially tenuous connection with how "words" are "hung" in the seventh sentence, which seems to describe a quality of speech. And yet the conversion of the auditory to the spatial is enigmatic: is there a "flatness" of affect or a failure of the words to be articulated?

Then, sentence eight moves from the relative abstraction of "words" to the highly abstract "class of events," a naming which is appropriate for language but seems to point to something in Tjanting itself Though succeeding one another on the page, various sentences can be read as conveying perceptions or actions potentially occurring at once-for example, the shouting of the neighbors, wind rattling cans, and the jet's emergence. The text forms a physical space that allows for the sense of a mental space of simultaneity in consciousness. In fact, the ninth and tenth sentences can be construed as examples of what is going on simultaneously in the neighborhood sketched earlier in the passage (or some other one, since we can't be sure). It is even possible that one person is doing the drinking! If one assumes that those in front "of the liquor store" are drinking alcohol, s/he may read these concurrent events as either a comparison of "water" and alcohol as convenient liquids promoting smooth transitions (one physiological, one social) or a contrast between a health measure and a habit that can destroy health. On the other hand, this may be a different kind of comparison: we have no assurance that the "pill" is being swallowed for medicinal purposes; it could be a drug that is no less dangerously addictive than hard liquor. To complicate matters a little more, whoever left the "Thunderbird bottles" by the flagpole may or may not be the same person(s) sitting by the store. The issue of health and self-destructiveness is further explored in the wonderfully unrealistic final exhortation of the passage: the call for displacement of "dessert" is, oxymoronically enough, extreme moderation. Of course, "salads" could be a trope for collage, and Silliman may be asking the reader "to think of the pleasures of contiguity in collage, rather than narrative closure, as aesthetic "dessert."

In the light of the kind of reading that I have been attempting, the command, "Better have a topic sentence" (79), must be greeted with laughter. Even if the assertion is replaced by the question, "Aren't these all topic sentences?" (156), sentences undermine each other's singular status as "topic sentence." "Each sentence is a test" (82) for other sentences and, of course, for the reader. Another (easier!) way to read Tjanting is to focus on numerous linguistic and thematic repetitions that occur at varying intervals. (I have already noted Silliman's frequently use of the word "sentence.") And so I will discuss the reiterated thematization of 1) the reading process; 2) the writing process; 3) quotation or citationality; 4) class/ethnicity/gender; 5) "bus"/"buses."

Silliman's sentences on the reading process do not tell us how to negotiate this sprawling work that bears "analogies to quicksand" (15), but insist that "learning to read does not stop" (33) and to wonder: "does learning to not read"--or, learning to avoid reading's challenges-- "stop" (62). In Bloomian misreading, interpretation departs from the text while encountering it: "While you read this you continue thinking, composing your own poem as you go" (49). As various Language Poets have said in their critical writing, "Your function here is collaboration. I will just stay here to make a point" (115). The writer has "made" each "point"--an old-fashioned word for "sentence" and each possibility of meaning, so that the reader can collaborate with the text's sentences. And yet, the taunt, "Try to imagine what I mean" (104), still registers. Further, in some sentences that torque the syntax of previous ones, Silliman suggests that departure from this game may be judged a deviation from reading, perhaps even from collaboration: "As you go while composing your own poem, you continue thinking you read this" (105). On the other hand, any standard for measuring a reader's interpretation against an author's sense of his/her intention is destroyed by the latter's shaky impression: "I've long since forgotten these words you're reading, wch serve only to feign a union in the act of this instant, leaving each of us secretly in this place alone" (157).

Ambiguity keeps deepening conflict between divergent views of the reading process. In the assertion, "Any instant one-third of the audience is caught in a trance" (88), is the "trance" a result of the author's well-exercised intention, "the audience" members' failure to pay attention to authorial intention in the text because of their own distractions, or a fact of reading, beyond individual responsibility? The hint that "You must first let the work exhaust you before you can begin to read" (158) could refer to the author's techniques for inducing exhaustion, but an earlier sentence reads, "A good reading exhausts attention" (57), suggesting that the reader's effort is the exhausting factor. Ambiguity of pronoun reference also makes it hard to say whether the writer as interpreter is exploring his own mind or positing the reader's, or whether the reader seeks his/her own mind's intricacies, conceived as a unity or split, or that of the writer: "This text might be a guide, but it is the route of your own mind we are, both of us, in this instant, act, committed to pursuing, following, tracing" (152-3).

Reflection on the author's writing process is implied in the book's title: a Tjanting is an implement for drawing in batik.) When the poet declares, "So one writes to discover who is doing the writing, & these connectives are less a style than pointers in that direction" (51), the "who" is not necessarily Silliman, even if traces of his subjectivity as a late seventies San Francisco resident permeate the book. Further, "A poem with its zipper broken" (157) may not indicate excessive revelation of the poet's innermost secrets but a dysfunction of the oldfashioned referential "transportation" of a self to a reader's consciousness: "Poetry is changing & no one is in control" (138). There are frequent reminders of the splits within a subject's intention as a user of language: "Even now I am thinking something quite different from these words" (66) and "Can I trust these words to be my thoughts?" (188). While poststructuralist notions of linguistic structures as constitutive of speakers were gaining credence in the U.S. academy, Silliman wrote, "I am an example of grammar" (128).

In Tjanting, the sense of authorial "voice" that is so important to much MFA workshop culture is suspect, a reification: "I found my voice, pickd it up, looked at it carefully" (185). Such spurious unity is challenged by the primacy of ongoing dialogue-- "All conversation seemed to be in the middle by the time you arrived" (36)--and by an emphasis on quotation. "Often words occur as fossils" (57), and the tone of an instructional manual mocks the fiction of absolute aesthetic originality: "These words have been tested prior to their current application" (173). Not only does the text and perhaps the author-function, a "garbage man of words" (184), brag, "I'll quote anybody" (131) and threaten, "I might hear anything you say. Language junk" (150), but "theft" is humorously acknowledged: "I am always looking at your work, stealing from it & using it in a hundred ways even tho a lot of the time I can't read it & basically don't know what you're doing" (130). The "you" here is multiple, and recontextualizations of stolen material are various and complex.

Interspersed with all the writing about reading and writing, there are frequent references to socioeconomic class in Silliman's book. One outright Marxist statement, "Reading is always an act of war (between classes, over consciousness)," occurs a quarter page before the psychopolitical assertion: "Your consciousness is first of all the consciousness of your class, & this is never more clear than in the sudden flowering of the emotions, the waves of anger that on occasion sweep 'inexplicably' through you, flash floods of being" (138). While the general atmosphere of discontinuity militates against credence in any broad generalities, some sentences tend to support these assertions through brief, forceful, specific references to the suffering of working class poor: "Turned away twice from General, she had her baby alone at night in a residential hotel guestroom, meaning the nearest sink was behind the elevator at the end of the halflit hall" (167). Another example near the end of the book is a description of nursing home abuses (186-7).

Class indicators in everyday life are also suggested, even as uncanny syntax permits no simple reading of a "statement": "Covering furniture act of class affiliation tv is a gray-blue lamp" (70); "Act of affiliation is a blue-gray lamp covering class tv furniture" (168). If the sentence, "A way of rolling sleeves up indicates class" (35), is fairly commonplace, the "revision," "A way of rolling class up indicates sleeves" (67), intriguingly points to how, depending on how an advantage can be gained or a disadvantage avoided, one can expose or hide signs of one's class, wearing them either "on" or "beneath" one's "sleeve." In another pair of sentences, the ambiguity in the word "hedge" plays on distinctions between the ostentation, self-isolation, and financial caution of the rich: "Ruling hard as the hedges of an edged class garden" (69); "Ruling edges as the hedge of a hard class garden" (166).

While he sometimes records class antagonisms--"When he asks for spare change, she takes all these coins & hurls them at the gutter" (148)-- Silliman more often introduces gestures with the potential to disrupt class distinctions: "Familiarity in the eyes of a beggar" (41); "Authority of eye-contact fuses the beggar to his other" (160). Sometimes a whimsical rupture of class boundaries appears out of nowhere: "That violinist is chewing gum!" (147). Even the hyperbolic remark, "Rockefeller phlegm like money has" (83), reduces distance between the super-privileged and the poor/middle class through the proximity of the vulgar "phlegm" to "Rockefeller." Perhaps the strangest instance of this phenomenon is the "slumlord, who owns 30 buildings & manages more than 100 others," depicted as too busy working to enjoy normal comforts; he "has no home of his own, sleeping in a suit on a couch in his office or in vacant units here & there about town" (187).

In references to race and ethnicity, Silliman frequently exposes limitations of "normative" expectations by departing from them: "That Japanese couple is speaking French" (124); "Southern rural black dialect, with British spellings" (185); "Tibetan in a Pauline Oliveros hat" (146). Subversions of boundary are also appear in sentences about gender: "She was not able to decide if a sex change meant she wld be a man or a lesbian, so thot to try both" (147); "Her boyish face with those incredibly female eyes" (191). The poet parodies unreasonable demands for absolute nurturance placed on mothers: "Infant chokes on a nipple, while Mother gulps a Bud" (179). Sometimes, hyperbole underscores the absurdity of sexism: "She spent the next decade pregnant" (180); "Sexism is being less afraid of a big dog if it is being walkd by a woman" (48); "Being less afraid of a woman if it is being walkd by a big dog is sexism" (104). Not merely silly, the second sentence invites a complex response: the objectification of 'Woman" through the reversal of walker/walked, the pronoun reference ("it"), and an implicit linkage of misogyny and gynophobia add to the first sentence's perspective even while diverging from it. The seemingly illogical relation of the if and then clauses may disappear if the reader considers that "big dog" may not refer to a canine, but a horny and/or ugly male. Sometimes, there are brief psychological analyses of the reading and misreading of women's behavior and affect: "The particular vulnerability one sees in the eyes of a woman as she emerges from a restroom in a public place, registered as hostility, the glare" (35).

No word in the text is repeated as often as "bus." Buses are such an ordinary part of urban experience that paying close attention to the obvious tends to defamiliarize them as much as it allows for instant recognition: "I do not remember learning that you pull the cord to ring the bell for the bus to halt at the next stop" (119). Silliman often depicts the bus as an awkwardly "lurching" (18) (126), cramped, ungainly, inconvenient, frustrating mode of transportation: "They slap the side of the bus as it pulls away, having faild to catch it" (32); "People struggle, attempting to shut bus windows" (34); "Just riding the bus entaild a massive effort" (48); "People struggle, groan, puff to reach the rear of the jostling bus" (145). The "bus motif allows extremely practical considerations to become enmeshed with all the theorizing in the text. For example, the question of whether or not to take a bus involves careful calculation of the expenditure of physical effort against time constraints: "The question was whether to walk up the small hill--it was only 4 blocks--or to wait for the bus" (116).

Thought often inconvenient, the bus is seen as a democratic social space, "a great leveler" (125) that, like a collage, brings together great (human) heterogeneity: . It is a crossroads for different communities: "At this busstop, the people with picket signs get off & others with tennis racquets get on" (121). Decisions about relative proximity to "the other" in relation to other considerations are constantly being made on buses: "They will stand on the bus rather than sit beside me" (45); "They will sit beside me rather than stand on the bus" (97). Different concepts of bus etiquette are mentioned, ranging from the "public" recognition of "each other's need for privacy (seldom talks to strangers on the bus)" (23) to "dudes sing[ing] beery r & b on the bus on their way to the night shift" (129). On the other hand, the bus could be a place to throw aside protocol for personal advantage: "After this woman I've been talking with casually gets off the bus & it starts the slow pull away from the curb, she comes running after, tapping the window where I sit, yelling out her number" (137).

If John Cage lauds "empty words," Silliman in Tjanting asserts: "My signifiers aren't empty, but they leak" (161). While repetition of themes/motifs permits an accretion of signifying possibilities to emerge,leakage cannot be contained, and permeability cannot be fully accounted for: "Meaning clings to words like smoke to a sweater" (143), not like the unmistakable mark of wine on a shirt. Not surprisingly, Silliman allows a hypothetical naysayer to cast aspersions on his text: "It is not the communicability of your writing that is here at issue; because few will in any event ever comprehend, the distance between words & their causes, contexts, is too various, too vast, but the integrity with wch you approach this necessary limitation" (151). The reiterated adverb "too" is crucial: how much disjunction is "too much" to trust the writer's "integrity," to assume that he is doing more than slopping sentences together randomly? How could one decide? Perhaps Silliman's "integrity" resides in his rejection of narrative coherence as a coercive "limitation," in his insistence that "variety" and "vastness" of "causes" and "contexts" entail an expansiveness, recognition of the actual flux of perception and interpretation. I would argue that his careful handling of this expansive mode allows salient relations between sentences to be established and to "communicate" gradually.

Even before these relations are fully charted, ample "communicability" arises from the build-up of "axioms" and sensory perceptions that are immediately understandable to most readers. From the vantage point of 2003, this 1981 text can help a reader who lived through the late seventies in the U.S. activate vivid recollections of that period. References to Jimmy Carter, the murders of San Francisco public officials, the sudden death of Pope John Paul I, the jogging craze, the running shoe as a commodity fetish, and other, similar images and news items contribute to seventies recollection. So does the sense that the utopian promise of the sixties had recently suffered serious setbacks and that sixties left ideology and aesthetics need substantial rethinking. The relative absence of imagery about the impact of computer technology on daily life and analyses of capitalism lacking reference to multinational corporatism also tell us that Silliman's prose-poem was not written in the last 15 years. Of course, many more sentences in the book--for example, most of the "bus" sentences--are highly recognizable representations of "typical experience" and reflection that could easily be taking place in 2003, or 1970. The interplay of this instant (or nearly instant) "communicability" of reference and the delay in comprehension of links between and among sentences will irk its share of readers, but I see it as a major source of the pleasure, fascination, and challenge of reading/rereading Tjanting.

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