There is — I’ve come to feel — a text within the text, made up of the words and phrases that lodge most firmly in our minds as we read and the hidden relationships we sense between them. Can it be brought into the light and given at least a minimal coherence? If so, what if anything might it tell us about the parent text?
I think this shadow text is based in part on semi-conscious, momentary misinterpretations which we are continually correcting automatically as we read. It’s of a piece with those false ideas and associations we all harbor based on misunderstandings that were subsequently corrected, sometimes very quickly, but still too late to prevent such shadow ideas from persisting, showing up in dreams and sometimes even influencing conscious thoughts. (This is, in part, how propaganda works.)
If I were able to read with perfect focus, perhaps a shadow text would not develop, but the imagination is an unruly beast, and fluent reading gives it latitude to stray to one side or another as I proceed, like a dog on a long leash inspecting things of interest while its owner plods straight ahead. It has, in other words, its own agenda. To recover the text within a text, do we not also need to be dog-like and follow our ears and noses more than our eyes? Certainly we need to be more active. Investigation may even require that we bark and listen for a response.
Just as (we are told) there are no atheists in foxholes, so the erasure poet comes to believe that there are no truly prosaic passages in a passage of prose. You can only look at arrangements of words on a page for so long before you completely lose track of which are the expected sentiments, the set phrases. Strangeness affects them all. You look deeper: within words, and between words widely separated on the page. New possible poems spark with electricity, like Frankenstein’s monster just before full reanimation. But it’s a zero-sum game: for one poem to open, countless others must remain closed. Syntax, like time, only flows in one direction. Knowing this, you hesitate over the source text. The poems are parallel universes, each with their own laws. And as in physics, any pretense of the observer to a god-like standing above the observed phenomenon is impossible; to observe is to recognize, and to recognize is to implicate oneself in an inherently contingent origin. Perhaps the Daoists are right, and the only perfect art object is the uncarved block.
This is sculpture. No, it is interpretive dance. No, it is architecture without blueprints, otherwise known as archaeology. That stone is just a stone, but this one has been worked, and this fragment of human bone will yield up its secrets in the laboratory. And this spot could become a sacred place again, and for the same reason—ancestor veneration—were it not for the fact that a factory must be built. Or, more likely, a parking garage. But I digress. But I always digress. But I also keep circling back and finding new things to dig for. I am like a dog who buries a chew toy and comes back later and digs up a bone. An old dog who looks forward to forgetting his old tricks. A new study shows that dogs process language the same way people do: poorly. When hearing an unfamiliar language, we tilt our heads to catch the few fragments that still make sense. We apply our advanced archaeological skills to assemble those fragments into something just familiar enough to make sense—and just strange enough to keep us listening, looking, tasting, smelling. Such an enticing redolence. Such an efflorescence among the tombs.
Rows of targets on the side of a barn with an arrow in every bull’s-eye. “An expert marksman must live here!” Or a fool who fires at random and paints a target where each arrow lands?
It’s difficult not to make sense—not to find meaning in words or see faces in the forest. The truth is that wherever an arrow lands, something like a bull’s eye opens. Bulls aren’t terribly perspicacious. Wherever one charges, something like an enemy crumples. It might be a matador’s cape or china in a shop, who knows? But the bull sees as well as he needs to and shits anywhere he wants. Let his B.S. dry out and you can burn it, use it to cook a can of beans.
A poet is more than just a fool or a bull-slinger, though. Our job is not simply to make sense, but to make it beautiful. That requires a selective kind of vision. You have to not only find the bull but also un-find it, and ultimately forget about it. Pastures are so much more beautiful if they haven’t been grazed.