Friday, June 22, 2018



Roseate, Points of Gold by Laynie Browne
(Dusie, 2011)

Bodies waken to each other in a cross-light that shines through, each to each, each a wake, iridescence of quivering lipid lenses. One of us lies within the other, eye-to-eye refracting, “suspended like translucent bodies whose movements reveal luminescence.” One-on-one as if between, there is a curtain, then a hand, darkly against glass, touch or grace. Finding, in reality, there is no glass at all, nor lens, for “lenses fall away from the rushing of crinolines,” from the fabrics and flukes of the body, for “the body is a curtain,” cleaving and recombining in a draft of air, in globes of air rising from our lungs underwater, or, as if underwater, there floats “one body within another, as the moment of separation dissolves”—our own clear eyes having “foretold this day within which / there is no separation between this water and another.” So this quiet rupture. Quiet apotheosis of you through me, and vice versa.
But the surreal, sunken and brocaded corporeality of Laynie Browne’s Roseate, Points of Gold, does not happen in a vacuum. As I have tried to suggest, it occurs in and through other bodies—here, the mother’s body. Browne’s book unfolds, at least in part, as a gestational experiment, tracking the development of a you within a me. But more than that, as she sets “out in search of a question” by writing in series, each poem a stem-cell compounding, Browne reveals the question, the doubled, refracted interior that one becomes when bearing another’s body: “Now clearly she walks horizontally in both directions at once, recognizing the dimensionless quality of being (as the winter light), yet proceeding with an absolute form.”
Browne’s poems register the realization of interiority by virtue of the slow articulation of another interior (a child’s, “dressed in cartilage and bone”) forming inside the one that preexists. In writing these, it is as if “she walks across / a landscape of shells / whose splintered edges / draw the eye” observing

Opal—                        tints
            and chambers

            once known only
            to their

The rose and opal on the inside of the subject of these poems would not be known if not broken, just as the maternal subject in Roseate, Points of Gold would not come to the realization of an inner world that is in fact an outer if not for a similar, cryptic breaking that occurs in the opening lines of the book:

I have broken the black paper band
which once      held these movements together

…breaking of forgotten                       notions
how a night can spread

a luxuriant paper                     fan

This fan continues to unfold in the poem that follows, “reveal[ing] its pleats” as the “Accordion nature of thought...Precipitated by a number of cells dividing,” the subdivisions of a blastocyst. Here, Browne correlates the development of the fetal body with the parallel emergence of a new kind of ruptured thinking, a thinking through the self, which she fields across the extent of the book, exploring the effects of a nested interiority, optical and concave, rendering a close-up of textures and ornate detail.
The indeterminate oceanic space that Browne’s poems inhabit, strewing the undulant surface like floral wreaths, is evocative of H.D.’s Sea Garden (1916). In the final stanza of “Sea Rose,” perhaps the most well-known poem in H.D.’s collection, fragrance hardens into a leaf: “Can the spice-rose / drip such acrid fragrance / hardened in a leaf?” Similarly, Browne observes how “Form follows fragrance—a skin which expands to match movement, pressing through marbled light, breaking in strands, following arcs and concavities, exploring the invisible dimension of matter.”  Here, nothing invisible stays that way for long; everything comes to light. And yet, objects and persons formed fully are not permitted to remain that way. True, “form within matches form without,” but in this world of “Descending light” and “Iridescence,” where a plurality of interiors are interpenetrated by exteriors and vice versa, I am “No longer surprised to witness loss of form.” Browne struggles, as I speculate many mothers do, with the concurrent, warping deformations, both to body and identity, that attend a nine-month’s forming.
However, a loss of form does not mean formlessness—it just requires instead a change of perception, a lateral valence. To this end, Browne wonders, “If departure from form indicates a collapse in the landscape which once supplied locations for meeting, where is that hemisphere beyond the senses?” Again the “invisible dimension of matter” slips down across Browne’s gaze like a gelatinous cap, “returning body beyond form.” It did so similarly for H.D., whose own “thoughts of tendriled ether” arrived during a difficult, stormy pregnancy, which brought her and her child to the Scilly Isles, off Cornwall, where she recuperated under the care of a close friend. As Albert Gelpi describes, it was on these islands that H.D. felt “moved into moments of consciousness in which feelings of separateness gave way to a sense of organic wholeness....”[1] The personally traumatic “collapse” she experienced while pregnant “gave way to coherence and alienation to participation in a cosmic scheme”—sensations the poet herself described as a “jelly-fish consciousness..., a set of super-feelings” like a “closed sea-plant, jelly-fish or anemone” that “extend out and about us” like “long, floating tentacles.” As H.D. discovered, the sensory seat of these super-feelings, described in Notes on Thought & Vision, composed during her pregnancy, was the head as much as the “love-region of the body,” where they folded, tripled, and fanned out like a fetus. 
Precipitated by a body within a body, Browne explores a similar jelly-fish consciousness in Roseate, Points of Gold. Staged in cycles and series, the dissolution of the self and its form is discovered, in fact, to be the content of “becom[ing] itself each instant,” like a “sepal” or “sea-tulip.” The lesson extends beyond the reach of motherhood: in fact, until re-reading the collection, I wasn’t fully aware of the gestational narrative threading the whole. What remained, instead, was an insight into a self-disruption through writing, a loosening permitting internal perambulations, as though the “indivisible center” contained within the “hollow” body had come unhinged behind the breastplate, that “first true bone to be born…, surrounding the turreted trees through which she travels.” In this inversion, the body’s armor becomes a fortress turned inside-out, containing the outer world, just as “the mind is set around the body like a bone clasp which must be opened before intention becomes identical with form.” In other, less elegant words, Browne reverses what is typically contained with what contains: mind enshrouds body, turrets surround forest, child surrounds mother. Of course, as ever, demarcation remains porous, “edges disintegrate and extend to the other side,” which dissolves any hierarchy between container and contained, cathexis and catharsis, body and soul.
Thus, the mother is sent abroad, though burdened by “a basket of thought,”

In every posture
bassinet            bone

Indeed, it is as if “sitting, the body changes, in this illusion of stillness.” It may have been the intention of the subject of the book to seek “the opposite of setting out, to be oneself a catalyst,” but by the end of Roseate, Points of Gold it is reckoned that one is always to be found “Steps from the known / to encompass another form.” Driven by “movement within the body which emanates from another source,” Browne leads us through stillness, through “a labyrinth spread[] as the fingers of the newborn.” Mystery unspools into mystery: the strange thought of an unknowable growth-within is superseded by the impossible destiny of the being who eventually emerges; “Body unhinges matter. From creation sprung possibility. Gold clasps upon their insteps.” Favoring the continuous serial form, this is the audacity of Browne’s work, here in this book as well as elsewhere: to demonstrate the possibilities that unfurl always, even in the simplest gesture, or most daily task. The possible futures we are led into, deeper into a labyrinth that is a clearing where we shall lose ourselves in love, rarely realizing we have been guided there by a “guide whose hands are small and exacting,” a guide whose “head fits into the palm of her hand.” 

[1] Albert Gelpi, “The Thistle and the Serpent in H.D., Notes on Thought & Vision (San Francisco: City Lights, 1982), 11.


Kylan Rice has an MFA from Colorado State University, and he is working on his PhD at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. His book reviews have been published by Colorado Review, West Branch, Carolina Quarterly and the Emily Dickinson Society Bulletin. Some of his poems can be found at Kenyon Review, The Seattle Review, and elsewhere.

Thursday, June 21, 2018



Dearest Annie, You Wanted a Report on Berkson’s Class: Letters from Frances LeFevre to Anne Waldman edited by Lisa Birman
(Hanging Loose Press, Brooklyn, New York, 2016)

Apart from having an unusually long title, this book is very much of its time. In addition to the letters, it comes with an introduction by Bill Berkson and an afterword by Anne Waldman. There is also a useful glossary of names giving brief biographical details of most of the people who are mentioned in the letters.

Frances LeFevre was Anne Waldman’s mother by second marriage. When she enrolled in Bill Berkson’s poetry class at the New School in downtown New York, she promised to keep her 21 year old daughter, who was in her final semester at Bennington, informed on the readings, writings and discussions that took place within the class. Her letters do much more because they give us an illuminating snapshot of the wider poetry scene from March through June 1966, and pronounce on the culture of the time. They also offer us intimate glimpses of family life and the handing down of mother-daughter advice in an open and honest manner on everything from poetics to personal relationships. LeFevre immersed herself in the artistic world of the sixties, meeting poets, composers, actors and artists, attending readings, concerts and galleries. She moved with ease within a wide circle of friends and acquaintances a number of whom, her daughter included, would go on to become eminent figures in contemporary American arts and letters.  

LeFevre was also a poet in her own right and twelve of her poems written between 1963 and 1977, some of them the result of workshop assignments in the style of other poets, are printed at the end of the book.

The early New York School comes alive in these pages. We read about happenings, discussions and experiments and catch a sense of the urgency that was bringing about change in the world of poetry and writing in general.

In his introduction, Bill Berkson highlights the conservative world into which he had been invited by Kenneth Koch to lead the class. Not long beforehand, it had been difficult for institutions to accept “Bill” instead of “William.” He was known in catalogue listings as “W.B.”  Despite these hangovers from a not too distant past, the New School in the sixties was already in full swing. The bulletin listed John Cage’s courses in Experimental Composition and Mushroom Identification (the latter categorized under “Recreation”), Rollo May offered classes on ‘Zen and Existentialism” and Frank O’Hara lead a workshop there in 1963. By 1966, the writing faculty included, beside Berkson, Kenneth Koch, LeRoi Jones, Arnold Weinstein, Jose Garcia Villa and David Ignatow.  Henry Cowell and Martin Williams taught music, Joseph Chaikin theater and William K Everson a course on film. Later in the decade there were a series of readings by “young poets in the vanguard tradition,” including Ted Berrigan, Ron Padgett, Aram Saroyan and Jim Brodey.

LeFevre was 55 when she joined Berkson’s class. This was a fairly average age for those attending writing classes at the New School in those days.  Most of the older students tended to be women whereas the younger ones were of mixed gender and generally more ambitious about being writers. That said, what struck me most about reading these letters was the sheer commitment and intensity that LeFevre invested in the project. Poetry was not just an abiding interest, it was also a way of life.

Some of her other classmates included Hannah Weiner, Peter Schjeldahl, Bernadette Mayer, Michael Brownstein, “a couple of blondes and one nondescript dame.” The assigned readings are interesting. Some of them go back in time (Pope’s translation of Homer’s Odyssey, Shakespeare, Wyatt, Milton, Drayton, Keats, Shelley, etc) while others are contemporary (Pound, Williams, Ashbery, Ginsberg, O’Hara, etc.) and quite a lot of the readings are from works of prose (Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake and Ulysses; Flaubert’s Madame Bovary) as opposed to poetry:

“Daddy is really amazed that we talk so much about fiction – he thought poetry was something entirely apart.”

The letters contain some fascinating insights about the difficulty of communicating a particular scene to the reader…

“He [Berkson] also warned us that it’s almost impossible for you to convey your own visual image or memory to anyone else linguistically, whether you’re telling a story or describing what someone else wore or whatever. He said try telling something funny you saw just by describing it as a picture and it’ll fall flat unless you also employ some tricks of language or narration, like wit, suspense, quotation, contrast, irony.”

…or how, in the 1920s-1940s, exegesis had a way of becoming more important than the poetry:

what Berkson described as the ‘close reading’ attack, which takes the poem as a thing to be opened up like a mechanical clock to see what makes it tick, tracking down each symbol, Freudian myth, literary allusion, classical reference, etc. According to Berkson, this had a destructive effect. In his view, the leading critics of this school, I. A. Richards, Cleanth Brooks, Robert Penn Warren, etc., took poets away from the main business of writing poetry.

LeFevre herself holds some firm views too. Reading some of the critics of the recent past and listening to some of the drivel on radio readings (her words, not mine), ‘I know that there’s no precise correspondence between quality and recognition at all, even though it’s a nice warm feeling to have somebody – even just one person – really ‘get’ what you mean. In the millions of words of poetry written in English alone…so few lines have been memorable. Most of them are in Shakespeare, still. This doesn’t depress me – on the contrary I find it truly exciting that any at all really make it up to some special height.”

The book also contains some interesting material that has nothing to do with the class: the moment LeFevre, “as thrilled as a schoolgirl about a movie star,” discovered that she was sitting behind the distinguished composer Elliott Carter at a concert of his music in New York City; a moving account of Marianne Moore getting into difficulty struggling to give a poetry reading at the Loeb Center, NYU, when she was nearly 80 and physically frail (“the audience of course was totally sympathetic and gave her enormous applause at the end”)  and an account of some of the statements –some might even say prophecies – made by Marshall McLuhan at the YMHA one evening in May 1966.

As with any publication of this kind, where the correspondence is all one way, the reader longs to know the nature and content of the letters that were written in reply. This is why the afterword at the end, written by Anne Waldman, helps to put a few things in context, and is a very welcome addition to the book.

Credit should go to Lisa Birman for her editing skills and for the way in which she has been able to put together such a comprehensive account of this correspondence between a mother and a daughter which has given us an intriguing insight into US American poetics in what has been described as a seminal moment in time.


Neil Leadbeater is an author, editor, essayist, poet and critic living in Edinburgh, Scotland. His short stories, articles and poems have been published widely in anthologies and journals both at home and abroad. His latest book is Finding the River Horse (Littoral Press, 2017). He is a regular reviewer for several journals and his work has been translated into Dutch, Romanian, Spanish and Swedish.

Wednesday, June 20, 2018


The following essay is from 

(Luna Bisonte Prods, 2018)


“That day, the great trumpet will be sounded,
and those lost in the land of Assyria will come,
and those exiled in the land of Egypt...”
-Isaiah, 27, 13-15

I've said before that "visual writing" gives the completed logos.  Textual writing, on the other hand, gives something else.  Textual writing gives the completed logos but as it’s seen from an impossible vantage. Textual writing is said to be subjective, but the logos so continually brings subjectivity into question that it's difficult to keep in mind what subjectivity is.  Is it simply infinity?  Is it incompleteness?  I think there’s much more that subjectivity is able to tell us about language.

It is true that the logos might be described as a monolanguage or metalanguage.  This would be more a number of linguistic principles than a language per se; it would be conceptual or, possibly, also, pictorial, like a set of interacting symbols but also like a strangely ornate house.  A metalanguage would be a general description of the nature of all languages.  It would be a dark, stormy alphabet, a schematic syntax; it would be, as Wittgenstein described it, a “philosophical grammar.” 

Jacques Derrida himself, in the epilogue to his tract on monolingualism, expresses the annoyance of feeling his words continually turning into a gesture or logos.  Having just referred to the "unreadability" of the "highways of...ongoing globalization," Derrida writes:

What then are the chances of the readability of such a discourse against its unreadability?  For I do not know whether what you have just heard me say will be intelligible.  Either where, when or to whom.  Or to what extent.  Perhaps I have just made a "demonstration"; it is not certain, but I no longer know in what language to understand that word.  Without an accent, a demonstration is not a logical argumentation that imposes a conclusion; it is first of all, a political event, a demonstration in the street....a march, an act, an appeal, a demand.  (emphasis added) (1)
It is interesting to think of society evolving toward an atomic "trace," an “act gratuit,” a wisp of smoke, a letter of a Phoenician alphabet, an archeological artifact, “the God particle,” perhaps a Latin verb, without syntax, intent, meaning or, as Derrida says, conclusion.  It seems society is attracted to a nexus of associations, a verbal mirror of itself.  In my opinion, the words "monolanguage" and "metalanguage" are too consistent with totalitarian impulses for use.  We are not talking—ultimately—about correctness in a proscriptive sense.  I have no quarrel with elementary grammatical rules, but sophisticated artistic levels of writing are no place for facile dogmatism, censorship, capricious formalism, superficial rectitude ("circumcision"), hollowness.  In discussing language characteristics from an historic perspective, I prefer to look for effectiveness in some wide sense, something more substantive and imaginative that I would not want to define too specifically—a “deep structure.”

Though I very much endorse typographical artworks, poems representing forms of consciousness—“visual poetry”—the visual prose that emanates from terminology, political propaganda, religious  debates, ideology, “empty rhetoric,” some of which we have seen in American politics in recent decades (in the intimidating use of words such as "socialism" for example or “regulatory state” but even in more ordinary words such as "taxes"), verbal iconography that corrupts and menaces origins—these are warning signs of a "demonstration" of something different:  not a limitless impressionistic well-considered street-level lodestar of Mankind but a groundless deceptive banner of brutality that constitutes Mankind’s self-betrayal.  In his article on his mentor Foucault, Derrida warns, "The reason and [the] madness of the classical age had a common root....which is [the] logos." 

Thus the question presents itself whether Derrida’s self-confessed “‘unreadability,” his philosophical word use is tending toward reason or madness.  Does this type of writing create a formal authoritarian category of non-meaning, linguistic status-symbols that undermine substantiveness and well-established social practices?  More importantly, are the writings of Derrida important in terms of what is taking place in modern society today?  American Noam Chomsky, in his early writings, criticized Derrida’s style on just these grounds.  Many writers, since, have criticized Postmodernism in this way, calling it a “dead language” and “a new kind of superficiality,” 

…a ready-formed dictionary, its words only explainable through other words, and so on indefinitely. (2)
In the end of Between Past and Future, Hannah Arendt expresses concern that Modernism and modern science, in search of “true reality,” may have lost the ability to be objective and, in a common-sense manner, realistic at all. 

Under these circumstances, speech and everyday language would indeed be no longer a meaningful utterance that transcends behavior even if it …expresses it, and it would much better be replaced by the extreme and in itself meaningless formalism of mathematical signs. (3)
Does Derrida’s Structuralist language divorce itself from reality and open inquiry and put in their place a provisional type of “communication” that secretly mechanically censors thoughts and reality?  The discussion hearkens back to Lenin’s distinction between “idealism” and “materialism,” though history informs us that the discourses of Soviet Communism were, in fact, idealistic and eminently subject to “decay.”  All language is.  Only “free speech,” that provides no “disconnect” of false credibility, no border lines of inconsequence, offers a language whose sole egalitarian function is to establish truth and avoid dishonesty.
* *
In Werner Heisenberg’s Physics and Philosophy is a chapter titled "Language and Reality in Modern Physics."  Heisenberg is the inventor of the "Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle," which asserts that it is impossible to know the speed of an object and its location at the same time.  But this is a recurrent theme in Modern Physics, similar to conclusions by other physicists from the same era, such as Max Planck's writing that the ability to observe atomic particles depends on the distance from them and that the closer an observer gets to the particles the less reliable is the information about them. 

Predictably, Heisenberg says that this uncertainty affects language.  Heisenberg says that the language "has already adjusted itself" to the presence of an ambiguity that contradicts classical notions of logic and substantiveness.  Borrowing Aristotle's term "potentia," Heisenberg says that concepts have been defined in a new way that cannot be called “objective.”  He says that their descriptions "retain a certain vagueness."

...quantum theory has encouraged the physicists to use an ambiguous rather than an unambiguous language, to use the classical concepts in a somewhat vague manner in conformity with the principle of uncertainty, to apply alternatively different classical concepts which would lead to contradictions if used simultaneously.  In this way one speaks about electronic orbits, about matter waves and charge density,... (4)
Heisenberg equates this ambiguous, contradictory imagistic language to ordinary in the sense of non-rigorous language.  He also compares it to "poetry." is not a precise language in which one could use the normal logical patterns; it is a language that produces pictures in our mind, but together with them the notion that the pictures have only a vague connection with reality, that they represent only a tendency toward reality. (5)
Heisenberg emphasizes that experiments with atomic events are not in themselves exceptional or fantastical; they have to do with "phenomena that are just as real as any phenomena in daily life."

But the atoms or the elementary particles themselves are not as real; they form a world of potentialities or possibilities rather than one of things or facts. (6)
The point is that, in the hundred years since they were made, the radical breakthroughs of quantum physics and relativity have infused language use "to an extent" and in a way that the academic use of terms from various intellectual disciplines no longer achieves or goes in the direction of achieving an objective status of "things and facts."  Because scientific rigor itself is shown to produce fundamental contradictions, the most erudite and complicated writing is reduced to being "ordinary."  Derrida quotes Artaud as saying, "poetry and science must henceforth be identical." 

Thus, in his style of writing, Derrida may be creating a linguistic high place by systematizing ideas, deriving a persuasive value from beyond his own words.  Perhaps he goes so far as to be exclusive.  Yet in many ways he shows that he has no intention of inventing a text that is intimidating or authoritarian.  He rejects strict formal logic and grammar and, in casualness and impressionism, shows little interest in conclusiveness (drawing strict conclusions from his writings).  He shares attachment to many types of verbal offenses and failures and is ostentatiously playful and systematically poetic.  Perhaps most importantly, he is not pretentious in the sense that is detached from realistic conceptualities in some demonstrable sense.  It seems clear that Derrida is merely employing language in the multiple  creative styles that have evolved from twentieth century scientific and cultural discoveries.  In other words, he is using language in the rigorous manner prescribed in order to bring out the very ambiguity, unusualness, creativity and "unreadability" that will save his writing from the crimes that he is well aware he might be accused of and that he himself detests.  
* *

The question seems to remain however in what sort of hierarchical position do we place a writing that is not unreadable in this sense, that is not essentially a picture; that does reach a conclusion; that uses the imperative mode; that is practical, unselfconsciously pointed, definite, direct. 

Chomsky emphasizes the physiological aspect of language, the fact that the human species has developed a culture based extensively on language, writing, communication and scholarship.  To Chomsky, the powers of linguistic expression shown by the human brain (and brains of other living animals) are remarkable to the extent that they appear unfettered by physical or natural limits.  Language is autonomous, outside judgment.  In speaking in particular about humans, Chomsky writes,

The fact surely is, however, that the number of sentences in one's native language that one will immediately understand with no feeling of difficulty or strangeness is astronomical; and that the number of patterns underlying our normal use of language and corresponding to meaningful and easily comprehensive sentences in our language is orders of magnitude greater than the number of seconds in a life time. (7)  
What subjectivity is, then, is freedom, the straightforward capacity to make up one's own mind in the most far-reaching situations, to approach the role of creator via the problem of ambiguity, to choose and decide for oneself, without any inherent predisposition.  Subjectivity is our (response)ability to be readable, to make sense in so far as we are able to do so—outside of the context of language’s inherent infinities.  Subjectivity is a depth of Being, without any frame of reference; the loneliness of Being, absurdity.  In this way it becomes “objective.”  Subjectivity becomes “presence,” a demonstration. 

 * * * *

The current exhibit at the Milwaukee Public Museum, The Dead Sea Scrolls and the Bible, is an extensive international endeavor.  It includes many scrolls and fragments of scrolls from the well-known 1940s discovery, a more recently discovered Jeselsohn Stone (inscribed with "Gabriel's Revelation"), a hand-sewn photocopied replica of the 24-foot "Great Isaiah Scroll" (one of the complete scrolls in the original discovery), fragments from the earliest codex of the New Testament, pages from rare Medieval Bibles, Native-American Bibles in the native languages, part of the earliest known Old Testament manuscript, a page from a Guttenberg Bible, a scroll fragment that has never previously left Paris and similar pieces from the country of Jordan.  About half of the exhibit consists of artifacts from the time to which the writing of the scrolls is dated (the first century B.C.E.), supplied by the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. 

As one waits to enter the exhibit, there is the sound of ancient music and blowing desert winds.  On a partition that ushers in the viewers is a large reproduction of uniform columns of ancient scroll writing.  Upon entering the exhibit, one sees a Byzantine mosaic of Alexander the Great, small limestone coffins excavated from sites in Israel, an architectural model of ancient Jerusalem, a Bedouin tent and table, a brass oil lamp, a menorah, maps, coins, photos of the area around the Dead or Salt Sea, news photos from modern-day Israel, photos of some of the people involved in discovering and preserving the scrolls.

There are many, many Dead Sea Scrolls.  The original discovery was made in 1946 or -7 in a cave on the west side of the Dead Sea on the far eastern boarder of Israel.  Others made subsequent discoveries in different caves and at other sites.  The first discovery occurred near the ancient settlement of Qumran Khirbet with its ruins of what is considered the location of a religious sect called the Essenes.  The Essenes are mentioned in the writings of the Roman Jewish historian Flavius Josephus.  Other scrolls appeared in a near-by ruins of a fortified city called Masada.  Although aerial photos apparently do not indicate a path from the ruins to the caves, it is believed that the Essenes were a religious sect of scribes like the Pharisees that mainly made copies of books of the Old Testament and that the Dead Sea Scrolls were written by the Essenes.  It is believed that part of the ruins near Qumran is a scriptorium for scroll copying and that possibly an impending Roman military attack caused the Essenes to hide the scrolls in the caves before fleeing their settlement. 

The exhibit contains only a fraction of the scrolls, about fifty of them, not counting the replica of the Great Isaiah Scroll.  Most of those exhibited are fragmentary, in some cases so much so that there’s hardly anything to view.  In my opinion, the best of the scrolls are copies of well-known books of the Old Testament.  The Essenes possibly made scrolls, copied them, rather than being writers of original material, although many of the scrolls purport to be original.  The sometimes mysterious prophetic scrolls not from the Old Testament have a content that has captivated some scholars, but fragmentary tales about “the Teacher of Righteousness,” “the Man of the Lie,” “the Wicked Priest” and the “Children of Light” seem to me apocryphal and unskilled compared to Old Testament symbolic writings found in books such as Ezekiel, Daniel and (later) Revelations, which contain far more insightful and conventional surrealist images than most of those discovered in the Dead Sea Scrolls.  The long "Temple Scroll" seems to be a cosmetically aged, recycled Old-Testament-imitation tentatively offered as a "new Deuteronomy."  Most of the interestingly titled scrolls, such as “Israel and the Holy Land” or "The Book of Giants" are so fragmentary that they indicate nothing conclusive one way or the other.

* *

Yet, in my view, if the writing in the scrolls is not divinely inspired, the appearance of the scrolls themselves is.  Hidden predictions and puzzling symbolism are not what is of interest here.  It‘s important to remind ourselves that the scrolls are illegible essentially to everyone attending the exhibit, first, because they are written (in various no-longer-used scripts) in Aramaic, Hebrew and Greek languages and, second, because they are so fragmentary.  The tiniest fragments seem to be offered in this vein.  Less is more.  With the Dead Sea Scrolls "the medium is the message.“  Nowhere is Marshall McLuhan's dictum so hopefully given free reign than with the Dead Sea Scrolls.  The fact that the writings cannot be read for what is written in them only leads to a different sort of imaginative reading of what is on view—as Derrida says, “For where, when and to whom.”  We discover and we read a more prophetic language of rock, lamp, paper, tool, wind and bone.  The scrolls are unreadable in the same way that Derrida's modern rigorous scientific style is unreadable--in a way that introduces us to the ontology of language, Mankind and God.  In sum, is language important as a tool of communication or as sacred presence? 

The literal unreadability of the scrolls forces us to assemble in our minds these artifacts into a Scroll of Man.  Amidst the shrouded significance of what is here, we search for clues about the meaning of life, about axiomatic cosmological directions.  We search for grand threads of humanity’s unrepeatable journey of civilization, indications of what events might be ahead, what fate awaits us.  We sense an overriding synthesis, an overriding set of rules or quality of character.  In every part of the dimly lit exhibit (in which subjectivity is lost but, also, in which we are lost in subjectivity)—from the broken off rocks to the inscribed coffins, to the nose shape of Alexander the Great, to the handles of the Great Isaiah Scroll, to the sad downward directions of the cursive Hebrew script markings written on goat skins and papyrus, to the geographic features of a small reedy section of desolate land powdered with salt—we search for unifying insights, a metaphysical pesher (commentary); we search for humanity's beginnings and ends, for sympathetic emotional connections concerning the tribes from which we may have indirectly descended and through whom (by adoption) we gain equality and common traits.  

Rather than seeing as experts what we are told to see, we are able to open our eyes to the one thing no expert sees better than we--ourselves.  The question of God vs. atheism is pervasive, somewhat underscored by the problem of authenticity.  The discourse of sacredness itself acquires a type of sacredness, a heavy thoughtfulness.  The valuable religious books from various collections, that carry also a secular value and validity, are impressive if not sacred.  An historic but uninhabited landscape presents itself.  Emptiness becomes invisibility.  We sense presence.  A cast of characters appears before us:  Moses, David, Egyptian opportunists, Bedouin nomads, Greek Orthodox Archbishops, the Wall Street Journal, international archeologists, Golda Meir.  Like a remnant of a people waiting for Godot or for a space ship from Mars in the wastes where no crop other than the plaintive weed of civilization has ever been able to grow, we are invited to gaze on the walls of the tents of our black-and-white past and witness the brief film about existence as it is projected in familiar shadows gesticulating before bright penetrating light.  The fact that there might be charlatans in the troupe only brings out untrustworthiness—the end is not yet.  We seek profit amidst loss; treasure amidst ruin.  Along the canyon walls around the Dead Sea, the lowest dry land on earth, every scored promontory appears as a holy text.  Every eroded boulder poetically proclaims a world of nations someday eternally at peace. 

Civilization is structure.  At the end of his life, Antonin Artaud said that humanity had not yet begun to exist.  The scroll fragments in the exhibit confirm this.  In the land of words, language remains a picture of Laws.  Nothing is revealed.  Everything is missing.  Where people are absent we sense Being.  With electron microscopes, we are able to bring into focus several individual beings:  Emmanuel Tov, Professor John Strugwell.  But we haven't graduated beyond the pictures, the evidence.  We haven't attained autonomy, resistance.  We are still endlessly wandering in the indeterminate labyrinth of useless possibility.  In speaking of "the Being that is announced within the illegible," Derrida claims that "illegibility is therefore the very possibility of the book."  Yet we continue to wait; we remain wrinkled, blind paleographers, wondering if we will ever see. 

* *

Upon leaving the exhibit, there’s nowhere to go.  Though barely able to afford the price of admission, we dutifully purchase gift shop mementos.  We bump into people as though they are furniture, the black lady at the parking booth talking on a cell phone.  If we asked her the time of day, she would run for the security guard.  We greet butterflies, Mastodons from our youth.  We push through a strange little-used door, back into the parking garage, to a precarious concrete sky.  The Parking Garage Scroll.  The Street Signs Scroll.  Everything has this same illegibility that we feel we might begin to read.  In the streets, consolation is still illegible but perhaps slightly audible.  Our problems only get worse.  We struggle with memory, slam the door of our falling-apart jalopy lives.  We search the horizon.  We feel the need to invoke Derrida and rigor: "Freedom is granted to the nonpagan Land only if it is separated from freedom by the Desert of the Promise."  Didn't I tell you?  We aren’t free unless we perceive the promise of freedom being denied us.  So, now, you too are a ghost.    
It isn't so much a question of discovering that there are "limits of freedom."  What we discover in the Dead Sea Scrolls is much more substantive, the way that freedom is complicated, not by lack of knowledge but by knowledge itself, not by weakness but by strength.  The logos of Man or the logos of God--it‘s up to you.  The general concept of a monolanguage (metalanguage) that we put to the test in actuality but is neglected in our understanding and conceptualizing is more than a set of rules or an outline of certain objectives, a holistic or global vision.  It is hardly a vision at all.  It is the ashes of truth mixed with the sands of lies.  It is a living body that is lovingly presented to us, without pretense and without intimidation, as contradictory, tenuous, plural and mysterious.  It is an incoherent vision.  Not a Dead Sea vision but a Sea of Death vision.  What we read in it is never an explicit, easily transcribed clear message of instruction.  Rather we read the traces of human lives, tragedies, endings, falls, stubbornness, oblivions.  We read a Being to whom all humanity is alive.  It is a vision of unquestionable authenticity because it is created out of a concerted attempt to disprove it. 

The message of the Dead Sea Scrolls is a message of substance but a substance that is ambiguous, a message of knowledge but also of mystery.  We are presented with a text whose recognizability is so intimate to us that it walks and talks, that it is part of ourselves and in many ways is ourselves.  It is a text symmetrical but heterogeneous.  It is a text our own bodies threaten to alter and destroy.  There are no codes but only axioms.  We value it even though it may be false.  It is a text not of the importance of political power but of its vanity.  It is a text that we have read again and again and that continually leads us in hope back to our everyday lives.  Yet it is an irrelevant and marginal text that most people ignore.  It is a text that in its nebulousness, its gentle sturdiness and consolation, its everlasting persistence and fertility, its most overriding quality is the fascinating meaning of its unreadability.  Derrida:  "Categories must be missing for the Other not to be overlooked." 

Somewhat uninhabited or deserted city, reduced to its skeleton by some catastrophe of nature or art.  A city no longer inhabited, not simply left behind, but haunted by meaning and culture.  This state of being haunted, which keeps the city from returning to nature, is perhaps the general mode of the presence or absence of the thing itself in pure language. (8)
The message of the Dead Sea Scrolls is a message that reconciles us with the possibilities of existence, of Being.  

1. Monolingualism of the Other, Jacques Derrida, Stanford, 1998, p. 72.
2. Modern Criticism, David Lodge and Nigel Wood, eds., “Death of the Author,” Roland Barthes, p. 315.
3. Between Past and Future, Hannah Arendt, London, 1977, p. 274
4. Physics and Philosophy, Werner Heisenberg, New York, 1958, p. 179.
5. Ibid., p. 181.
6. Ibid., p. 186.
7. On Language, Noam Chomsky, New York, 1977.
8. Writing and Difference, Jacques Derrida, Chicago, 1978, p. 5.
Artwork:  random internet sample of text from Dead Sea Scrolls.


Recent publications of Tom Hibbard are writings on Surrealism and translations of Surrealist poems published in Big Bridge online magazine. Moon Willow Press in Vancouver published his collection of poetry, Sacred River of Consciousness, in 2011. Several long essays on ecology and Existentialism are published in John Tranter's Journal of Poetic Research.  He has read his poetry at Myopic Books in Chicago, Woodland Pattern in Milwaukee, Bonk Series in Racine, In Your Ear poetry series in Washington D.C. and the Lorine Niedecker poetry festival in Fort Atkinson, WI.