Charles Alexander on Beverly Dahlen


I feel like I’ve always been a-reading Beverly Dahlen’s poetry, that she had me with

before that and before that

the place where A Reading One begins, the place that demarcates nothing, and lets us know that what is not the poem is also the poem, the after/before potentially unending in all directions, beginning, if anywhere, at Babel, or at the

tik tik tik tik tik tik tik tik tik tik tik tik tik tik tik tik tik tik tik tik tik tik tik

that underlies “this sensorium” and is a possible path toward understanding the semiotic, the chora. And Beverly was there

tracking it. already at the beginning.

My beginning here, filled with quotations from the first published volume of A Reading (thank you Momo’s Press & Stephen Vincent), is not quite the beginning of my experience of reading Beverly Dahlen. I first found her work while employed in a rare book library, having begun writing and learning to print, eventually to publish – found her work both in that library in Madison Wisconsin, and in a woman’s bookstore there, Lysistrata, where I also first discovered work by Lorine Niedecker and Susan Howe.

Thus – a little earlier in Beverly’s oeuvre, one reads in Out of the Third, in the poem “Tree” as it begins

what I
and you said
I said nothing

and she also writes

this is my mother: she has no name

the name of my father
is the same as the name of
his father
and his father’s name
is the same as
his father’s name
and before that I don’t know
they all get lost in the ocean

She establishes here her ongoing concern for several issues: right here, very early in her work.

1) the mother has no name, and has a quite different and entirely open/blank
page being “in language”
2) the ongoing, never-ending/beginning fact of being as earlier noted in “before that and before that”
3) the sense that nothing is nothing is in language and is something, possibly everything
4) the centrality of the tautological

And here I jump from this early book to Dahlen’s 1988 essay (now after A Reading 1-7 and near the publication time of A Reading 11-17 and A Reading 8-10 and even after the writing of A Reading 18-20, which was published much later), first given as a talk in a series I sponsored in Tucson, The Magritte Sessions – an essay titled “Tautology and the Real,” where she notes that

At some point the writer may apprehend that there are no “other words,” that language itself is an enclosed, self-referential system, that it takes the form of a vast tautology, circular and exclusive, that “it allows,” to quote Terence Hawkes, “no single, unitary appeals to a ‘reality’ beyond itself.

Or, put another way, this before that and before that is all there or all HERE, multiple, simultaneous; the before ocean or semiotic or chora is also the NOW, and it is, as the “I” says in “Tree” (as well as in many places in Dahlen’s work), a “nothing.” But what is nothing? It is the space through the holes in all attempts to transcribe the real, it is what escapes, it is the “no appeal that desire can make to the real.”

Nothing. She ends the essay “Tautology and the Real,”

Nothing is diamond is mind. [my emphases]There will always be a reading of “nothing” in which it is full, rather than empty.

To such irreducibilities one must point, and close.
Yet what closes? The epigraph to A Reading 1-7 reads,

Wittgenstein asked where, when, and by what rationally established criterion the process of free yet potentially linked and significant association in psychoanalysis could be said to have a stop. An exercise in “total reading” is also potentially unending.

This epigraph is credited to George Steiner’s After Babel, and immediately after reading the words “after Babel” we turn the page to “before that.” So we have all of time, and a rhyme: after Babel / before that. Significantly in that beginning to A Reading, no capital letters: no beginnings, in other words (no other words).

No man knoweth the day or the hour
* * *

Something new occurs in the most recent books of Beverly Dahlen, even if all the writing is not entirely “new.” Still as always concerned with time not being time, space being what and where we are, tautology opening on to excess and the emptiness that is full, she more often becomes funny, political, and rails against systems and inanities (same thing?) that would deny obvious truths (which may be that there are no truths). So you get, not A Reading, but the nursery song-styled “A-reading” as in “a-milking we will go,” or here, “A-reading Spicer we will go,” where

there it is now      
pure products
       our beautiful setting
       the props
   Shkspeare’s terrible prophecy: all the world’s a stage

   private property
   ends and means
   ‘staggering’ fences

the blatant wellwisher’s hole in the face

Don’t we never cease thinking the universe harbors intelligence?
Why should it? Why should it necessarily be us?

The dialectic is not mocked.

everbody talking ‘bout heaven
ain’t a-goin’ there

(the latter two lines spelled out as in a pronunciation dictionary)

or in the marvelous A Reading 20, where evil is seen as both banal and comic, as in, let’s get out of this place where

these gaudy primates dressed in the rags of the new bewilder
the finest distinctions in the course of a minute or two, fine
in the sense of subtle.

fine-tuning the blunt instrument produces spectacular results.
I mean in the sense of circus. the eyes of Texas are upon you.

I mean Texas in the sense of extremes. the blunt instrument.
the comedy as well as the banality of evil. I mean in the sense
of place. that high and windy moral tone.

and in these lines full of repetitions, where “I mean” and “I mean” and “I mean” finally mean what they can not contain, we are back to that place where the mapping of the real is most interesting for what exceeds it, for what remains as the nothing that is left.

But a most playful “nothing,” as we would play with sounds words poems figures of speech figures of movement. As in the marvelous sonnets in A-Reading Spicer & 18 Sonnets, where

there he is      I’d say
when he peek a boo’d around the corner as if I were his 
mother     but that’s just the cover story     we can’t help
the age we are    he played for time    and so in a way
did I

and now my own remarks on Beverly Dahlen threaten to become entirely play and tautology, so let me have tautological play, beginning with beginning

tik tik tik tik tik tik tik tik tik tik tik tik tik tik tik tik tik tik tik tik tik tik tik

and read a bit of a recent poem, not written for Beverly, but that I don’t know if I ever could have written without her – she is, indeed, my “before that and before that”

from Pushing Water 48

stanzas in something other than
meditation shoes still tied
in a gray sweater& on a Monday
the walls are filled with shoes and
dishes and bags and walls the
walls are filled with walls
here I am    between walls
halls and doorways not the
red room but the red sofa the red
ottoman the glow of lamp
the switches switches off and on

the nothing that is far away
the nothing close as skin on face
the nothing at the end of the pen tip
the nothing inside the body
the nothing around everything
only no such thing only what is
the case only not you only
not me time to open the
open eyes

and let me play the game “10 Things to Do with Beverly Dahlen”

go around and around until before that
laugh at the world’s inanity
cry at the world’s inanity that beats and beats
walk in the desert where nothing speaks
talk about mothers and fathers
drink a glass of fine old wine
walk into a color, perhaps a chair, sit down
find the missing part
make a cartoon balloon around “gloriosky / zero” that points to “my dog gone”
draw a curved connection from “a” to “universe”
say to a crowd of people, “Beverly Dahlen I love you”

Thank you very much.

Charles Alexander
13 December 2008
San Francisco, California

[ed. note: apologies to Charles and all as the formatting for the above poem is not accurately reflected here but inconsistencies b/w firefox and explorer make it impossible [at least w/in my skill level here] to remedy.]

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