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Journal Article


Leubner, Ben


Twentieth Century Literature, Hofstra University, p.36-57 (2009)

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  Few phenomena gave me more delight than to observe the forms which

  thawing sand and clay assume in flowing down the sides of a deep cut

  on the railroad.

  --Thoreau (344)

  On the floor of the empty carriage lay five or six kernels of oats

  which danced to the vibrations and formed the strangest patterns--I

  fell to pondering over it.

  --Kierkegaard (169)

One of Marjorie Perloff's projects in Wittgenstein's Ladder is to delineate a "Wittgensteinian poetics" (181) by reading several contemporary poets directly influenced by Wittgenstein, among them Robert Creeley, Rosmarie Waldrop, and Ron Silliman. I try to continue this work here by reading Jorie Graham's poetry (though it may have been influenced by Wittgenstein only indirectly), not so much with a Wittgensteinian poetics in view as with the aim of advancing what Wittgenstein calls "that understanding which consists in 'seeing connexions'" between cases (Philosophical Investigations [section]122), an understanding less occupied with constructing a theoretical edifice than with illuminating points of contact between things that are already in front of us. I also try to follow the work of Thomas Gardner on Graham's poetry, but again with a difference: where Wittgenstein is usually left hovering, though no doubt significantly, in the background of Gardner's work (particularly in Regions of Unlikeness), I bring his writing to the foreground, especially On Certainty. One reason for doing this is to make a case for the importance of thorough applications of Wittgenstein in literary studies, where references to his philosophy, even in the work of astute critics, are often cursory and misleading. Take, for example, Angus Fletcher's claim that Wittgenstein "see[s] nothing good in the Transcendental" (73), a claim that would lump Wittgenstein with the logical positivists from whose misreadings of the Tractatus he took such pains to distance himself. While Perloff and Gardner, along with James Guetti, Walter Jost, and others, have done much to bring Wittgenstein to literary studies, there is still more, I think, to be done. First, a few words on the supposed rift between Wittgenstein and Continental thought seem called for. Wittgenstein was, of course, first and foremost a Viennese, a Continental, and yet his philosophy is more regularly represented as "analytic" and therefore opposed to the writings of, say, Derrida. This has obscured their often similar conclusions, particularly concerning how language functions according to an inherent errancy that guarantees meaning via the ever-present prospect of its breakdown. Both Wittgenstein and Derrida propose this picture of language, though they do so in different ways--Derrida by decentered, playful discourse and Wittgenstein by associative remarks and condensed similes. Reading one without the other risks the calcification of interpretation against which both caution us--and against which Jorie Graham's poetry is constantly on guard.

From the first poem of her first book, Graham has taken up the question of how meaning is simultaneously generated and frustrated, secured and set adrift, by language. In "The Way Things Work" "things" would seem to include language itself, which functions "by admitting / or opening away" (Dream 3), by "solution" (both answer and mixture). Graham believes in several particular things--"ingots, levers and keys," cylinder locks and pulleys--and early in the Philosophical Investigations Wittgenstein famously likens the function of words to "the tools in a tool-box: there is a hammer, pliers, a saw, a screw-driver, a rule, a glue-pot, nails and screws" ([section]11). Similarly in Graham's poem, things, including words, function by a variety of mechanisms, some of which fasten while others loosen: "The way things work / is that eventually / something catches." What things are doing when they aren't catching is the very condition by which they eventually do catch; the possibility of intelligibility (of grasping or catching the drift of something) is ensured by unintelligibility, evasion--a dynamic that Graham's work also investigates, laments, celebrates, and lets go (both liberates and allows).

Wittgenstein's last writings, published as On Certainty, are similarly occupied with the question of the way things work and how they can eventually catch and hold for us. Thus much of Graham's work is illuminated by certain passages in On Certainty, just of Graham can illuminate Wittgenstein. I will use the titles of four of Graham's volumes (Erosion, Materialism, The Errancy, and Swarm) as a loose organizing principle, as these titles seem to have been largely inspired by the philosophical dilemma of how meaning works.

Many of the remarks collected in On Certainty are either direct or indirect responses to G. E. Moore's refutations of skepticism in "A Defence of Common Sense" (1925) and "Proof of an External World" (1939). They make clear that even in the late 1940s and early 1950s Wittgenstein was still concerned with a central proposition from the Tractatus: "Scepticism is not irrefutable, but palpably senseless, if it would doubt where a question cannot be asked" (6.51). Where Moore attempts to refute skepticism by proving the existence of an external world, Wittgenstein asserts that a proof cannot be given to refute a position that is "senseless." In doubting the existence of the world, the skeptic has already tacitly acknowledged a number of things that have to be in place for the language game of doubting to occur. That is, the skeptic, to endorse groundlessness, needs a ground from which to elucidate his position, namely the mastery of a technique of language, which we acquire from an early age and which is an integral component (even a determining factor) of the world whose existence the skeptic would doubt. Wittgenstein thus takes neither Moore's side nor the side of the skeptic (though his sympathy is with Moore) but instead asks if Moore himself has "got the right ground for his conviction" (On Certainty [section]91). That is, why should Moore attempt to prove empirically what the skeptic has already, albeit unknowingly acknowledged, namely the existence of a world?

The question of grounds is raised throughout On Certainty, in relation, for example, to doubt ([section]122), to experience ([section]130), and to belief ([section]166). And one finds other geological metaphors--references to "matter-of-course foundations" ([section]167) and the "rock bottom" of convictions ([section]248)--and such things as a lack of sharp boundary lines ([section]52, [section]318, [section]454), gradual alterations ([section]63, [section]473), things merging into one another ([section]309), the need for footholds ([section]356), the threat of judgment toppling or going to pieces ([section]419, [section]420), and the need to be able to just take hold of something ([section]510) so as to avoid a plunge into chaos ([section]613). In the preface to Philosophical Investigations Wittgenstein writes, "The best that I could write would never be more than philosophical remarks; my thoughts were soon crippled if I tried to force them on in any single direction against their natural inclination" (v). In other words, attempts to dictate, direct, or strenuously order his thought have a necessarily damming effect; to force a channel against the natural inclinations of a thought cripples it. The "very nature" of his investigations thus "compels us to travel over a wide field of thought criss-cross in every direction" (v). By such topological ranging, though, we do not entirely abandon the inclination to order and control so much as we secure it by refusing to cripple either ourselves or our thoughts in the name of stability. That in pursuing philosophical investigations boundary lines become unclear, things merge into one another, and footholds are less than wholly adequate--that we must proceed rather haphazardly--turns out to reflect not so much any shortcomings of the investigator or the equipment as the very nature of the work. Wittgenstein's redirecting the problem of skepticism from the domain of empiricism to the field of language, then, gives rise to the question of how (and to what extent) meaning is guaranteed both through and despite the disintegrative forces of language; the grounds of our convictions are ultimately predicated on processes of erosion.

Jorie Graham's critics often use geological and riverine metaphors to describe her poetry. Bonnie Costello sees in it, for example, an equation between "conditions of consciousness" and the "conditions of erosion in which we live and think" (15) and notes that often in the poems "an apparent narrowing into limits allows for a sense of expansion" (23), just as a river carving a narrow channel through rock forms the expanse of a canyon. Willard Spiegelman writes that Graham's poems, like a river, "branch easily, luminously" ("Nineties" 234); her "syntactic volume and heavy verbal impasto sweep ever onward" (235), and by means of such "torrents of syntax," she "everywhere scoops up large bucketfuls of physical-metaphysical overlappings" (236). For Susan McCabe, in Graham's poetry "identity loses its banks" (188); she offers us "poems of subtraction--the radical removal of stable moorings." And as Forrest Gander has it, Graham's volumes constitute "a kind of echo chamber of Western literary culture" (75), a canyon from whose walls voices boom and resound, their origins wayward and difficult to determine.

Throughout her poetry Graham wonders at the manifestations and breakdowns of what surrounds her, often leading her to break things down herself and, when this fails, to break herself down--to cease to function and to turn the critical eye inward. "Always / I am trying to feel / the erosion," she writes in the title poem of Erosion (56), a poem that begins by resisting something presumably better: "I would not want, I think, a higher intelligence, one / simultaneous, cut clean / of sequence." While there is some hesitation in this assertion ("I think"), it is precisely this hesitation, this ability to pause and think, that is being affirmed as preferable to a form of consciousness cut clean from it. "No," Graham continues, "it is our slowness I love, growing slower," our trying to feel "daily / the erosion / of the right word, what it shuts."

One would expect linguistic erosion, or the erosion of meaning and grounds, to result from wrong words, but the right word also erodes. Right or wrong, any word is subject to processes of erosion and sedimentation, errancy and stability, that enable it to reach a destination or to be destined at all. Erosion, then, far from posing a threat to all grounds, is in fact essential to them. Conceptual erosion does indeed threaten to undermine clarity and understanding, but at the same time it allows in part for their possibility. That matter and matters are capable of being broken down (or that they do break down) is what ensures their intelligibility, even if it prevents their being wholly understood, or understood wholly. At the entrance to Walden Pond there is a trail sign that reads, "Help fight erosion, please stay on path," and while such efforts to regulate human traffic in nature are, of course, useful, there are two mistaken assumptions embedded in the directive to "help fight erosion": first, that erosion is a wholly negative phenomenon, and second, that it can be fought and defeated. Erosion is less an insidious force, that is, than simply what happens; one can attempt to prevent it by directing everyone along the same path, but that traffic will itself do the work of erosion. Even placing the sign in the ground accomplishes some portion of the work it is intended to prevent.

One of Wittgenstein's primary concerns is semantic erosion, the wearing away or obscuring of a word's meaning from inept philosophical handling (often including his own) in the form of propositions that, like trail signs intended to prevent erosion, participate in the process they are intended to curtail. Again, the fault lies less with the philosopher than with the nature of working, as it were, on a fault. Wittgenstein writes, for example, of his early joint sessions with Russell, "We felt that language could always make new and impossible demands; and that this made all explanation futile" (Culture and Value 30). If the philosopher's plying erodes the banks of language, then, language itself proves capable of dismantling philosophical confidence. While the remark just quoted refers to Wittgenstein's early ventures in philosophy, in his last writings we see him still trying to accommodate himself as best he can to the new and impossible demands of language. "Where others go on ahead," he wrote in 1948, "I stay in one place" (66). This remark may imply a critique of his capacity to advance along with others, but it also suggests he knows something others do not, that it might be just as or more important to track processes of movement as it is to engage in them. Like Graham, Wittgenstein thus might say, "it is our slowness I love."

Graham's own concern with semantic erosion--with the fact that language constantly makes new and impossible demands despite persistent, partly successful attempts to regulate it--runs throughout her poetry, and it prompts her sometimes drastic stylistic (or tectonic) shifts. The new and impossible demands of language are both mirrored in and met by the new and difficult demands of her poetry. She wonders (and trembles) less at the fact that there is something rather than nothing than at the fact that the something that is is like this, works in this particular way, reveals itself thus, and changes in accordance with both known and unknown laws. That "something" might be now the myths we inherit (as in The End of Beauty), now our own memories of adolescence (as in Region of Unlike-ness), now" a tree with birds in it during a snowstorm (as in "The Dream of the Unified Field"). Graham is enthralled both by the fact of erosion itself and by the particular ways in which certain things erode or have eroded over the course of history: religion, poetic tradition, and Western philosophy, among others. That these have taken the particular courses they've taken, that they are entangled with one another in the ways that they are, is a matter of endless fascination (and sometimes terror). And she does not readily distinguish between the erosion of such things and actual geological erosion. For Graham as for later Heidegger, the destinies of human constructions are not necessarily governed by human beings; erosion largely takes care of itself and does not require (though it may involve) specific human agency.

Wittgenstein illustrates this conceptual erosion in On Certainty. "It might be imagined," he writes.

  that some propositions, of the form of empirical propositions, were

  hardened and functioned as channels for such empirical propositions

  as were not hardened but fluid; and that this relation altered with

  time, in that fluid propositions hardened, and hard ones became

  fluid. ([section]96)

The hardened propositions in this picture constitute what is given, what "is there--like our life" ([section]559). Moore's "proof" of an external world via his "knowing" that his hands are before him is for Wittgenstein thus nonsensical as a proof. The proposition "these are my hands" (where one is clearly referring to one's hands), along with thousands of other "hardened" propositions, forms the bedrock on which less-solidified language games such as proving and doubting can be played. To attempt to either prove or doubt these propositions is thus nonsensical; one cannot doubt the grounds that enable one to doubt. And yet this bedrock, like the bedrock of an actual river, is itself always changing, shifting, for the most part gradually but occasionally quite violently. Recognizing this keeps Wittgenstein's concept of 'forms of life" from hardening into the sort of philosophical absolute he resisted.

The metaphor of the river and its bed posits (or deposits) the fact that language games operate on two different planes, one fluid and one hardened, but the difference between them is not always clear: "I distinguish between the movement of the waters on the river-bed and the shift of the bed itself; though there is not a sharp division of the one from the other" ([section]97). In our daily lives we make constant use of both hardened propositions, those we take for granted ("My name is Ludwig") and fluid propositions, which are much more susceptible to doubt and debate ("That was a good movie"). Obviously, we generally do not acknowledge this difference (as if we were pulling now from this supply, now from that), for the distinction between hardened and fluid is an oversimplification of a gradual alteration or process of erosion constantly occurring in language, and one might easily imagine cases where the first example given above is fluid in nature, the second hardened.

The poststructuralist dilemma of whether the world gives rise to language that describes it or language gives rise to the structure of the world it describes is not an issue for Wittgenstein. The shift from the former perspective to the latter marks a shift in the bedrock of our world-picture mythology ([section]95, [section]97). What we are now capable of doubting we had formerly been quite certain of: that language describes the world. "The same proposition," he writes, "may get treated at one time as something to test by experience, at another as a rule of testing" ([section]98). Wittgenstein is attempting less to establish a truth about the relationship between language and the world than to show how such a truth is formed, altered, and dissolved over time. In other words, it is not so much a question of settling the matter one way or the other by way of argument and proof as of understanding both how things have shifted, eroded, and caught over time and our relationship to these processes (whether or not we had a hand in them, whether we act with a shift or against it, how we accommodate it, and so on). It is precisely these questions that Graham explores, a difficult business where one's footing is never entirely sure (as in Graham's free verse) and where language constantly makes new and impossible demands.

Part of Wittgenstein's argument in On Certainty is that Moore cannot prove he has two hands by holding up his hands and saying, "These are my hands," where the proposition would agree with the fact of his two hands being in front of him, and this would constitute a proof. But where the skeptic would rejoin something like "But you can't be certain of that," Wittgenstein redirects the whole dilemma: "Here we see that the idea of 'agreement with reality' does not have any clear application" ([section]215). It is not so much that propositions agree or disagree with reality (and that this can be proven one way or the other), nor that they themselves constitute reality, but rather that a network of propositions that we are taught as a foundation holds true for us, enabling debates concerning things like "agreement with reality."

In a review essay of several studies of On Certainty, John H. Whittaker characterizes the question of whether a proposition agrees with reality as part of "the difficult relation between experience and its incorporation into our conceptual grammar" (297). It is just this "difficult relation" that Graham explores in her poetry, which is thus often labeled as difficult--dense, unorthodox, hard to interpret. "It is very difficult," writes Wittgenstein, "," to describe paths of thought where there are already many lines of thought laid down,--your own or other people's--and not to get into one of the grooves. It is difficult to deviate from an old line of thought just a little" (Zettel [section]349). In order to do so, one must think "even more crazily than philosophers do" (Culture and Value 75), and for Graham, poetry affords a space for such crazy thinking.

At stake in Materialism, Graham's fifth volume, writes Elisabeth Frost, "is the whole body of Western thought. The 'materialism' of her title refers not to American middle-class values ... but to the physical world--to matter and life" (34). Interspersed throughout it are excerpts from that tradition that address the constitution of reality and how human actions and assertions correspond to that constitution. Among the works quoted are Francis Bacon's Novum Organum (the eighteen motions of reality), Plato's Phaedo (on the nature of the soul), Jonathan Edwards's Doctrine of Original Sin (on God's creation of every material instance from nothing), and Wittgenstein's Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (subsets of the second proposition, "What is the case, the fact, is the existence of atomic facts"). These and other works are quoted not only to critique how certain worldviews endorse specific brands of materialism but also, I believe, to savor their strange meticulousness. Graham's complex appreciation for various manifestations of materialism is equivalent to her earlier position (or positions) on erosion.

Materialism begins and ends with poems that describe rivers. The opening poem, "Notes on the Reality of the Self," is one of five in the volume so titled, none of them featuring the self as customarily conceived. Are what the poems describe (rivers, bakeries, gateposts) offered as models for the self, or do they themselves actually constitute it? As in Stevens's "Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction," only "notes" are presented, from which one can hardly draw substantial conclusions.

That first poem begins, "Watching the river, each handful of it closing over the next, / brown and swollen" (3). "Watching" indicates a person, a human self (observing, taking notes), but the reality of the titular self seems more present in the "handfuls" of the river (not quite a personification, though not quite not one, either) closing over each other. In this the river resembles the poem, each line (or even foot) closing over the next (like Wittgenstein's investigations, where there is often a "lack of sharp boundary lines"). Consider the next lines:


  gnawed at by waterfilm, lifted, relifted, lapped-at all day in

  this dance of non-discovery. All things are

  possible. Last year's leaves, coming unstuck from shore,

  rippling suddenly again with the illusion,

  and carried, twirling, shiny again and fat,

  towards the quick throes of another tentative

  conclusion, bobbing, circling in little suctions their stiff


  on the surface compels. Nothing is virtual.

"Oaklimbs" is another near-personification, and the fact that the waterfilm is gnawing at the limbs turns the river, if not into a person, at least into something with teeth. Subject to the whims of the river, the oaklimbs become like the river itself: constantly in motion. Like all the poems titled "Notes on the Reality of the Self," this one is itself a "dance of non-discovery," where the assertion "All things are" is, like a riverbank, undercut, by the motion of enjambment: "All things are / possible," and hence not manifestly present. One handful of material closes over the next as "possible" supplants "are" and syntax swirls back on itself, as at the end of the passage above (where postponing the verb "compels" creates a kind of eddy). In On Certainty Wittgenstein describes the banks of his river as consisting "partly of hard rock, subject to no alteration or only to an imperceptible one, partly of sand, which now in one place now in another gets washed away, or deposited" ([section]99); some propositions are hardened, some are susceptible to sudden and even violent alteration, and some are like the pebbly, sandy stages in between. Propositions on the nature of reality from the works of Bacon, Plato, Edwards, and Wittgenstein himself, among others, might occupy any point or points along this spectrum; having once formed part of the bedrock, they may subsequently, through a complex process, be set adrift, rendered indeterminate. Graham's poetry is part of that process but also subject to it.

The river, or poem, like its leaves "coming unstuck from shore," moves on "towards the quick throes of another tentative / conclusion," but "conclusion" complicates "tentative," and "towards" brings up the question of whether these "throes" are ever reached at all. It is as if an uttered word or proposition manifested itself as a leaf on the surface of a river of language, a leaf that could get stuck to the bank for a while and so appear to be a permanent fixture, but might become dislodged, and in its "stiff presence on the surface" bob and circle in an assertion of both its likeness and unlikeness to the river that carries it along:

  The long brown throat of it sucking up from some faraway melt.

  Expression pouring forth, all content no meaning.

  The force of it and the thingness of it identical.

  Spit forth, licked up, snapped where the force

  exceeds the weight, clickings, pockets.

  A long sigh through the land, an exhalation.

That five of these six lines are end stopped might suggest a degree of permanence in the river's structure, which indeed it has: its banks, though susceptible to alteration and collapse, are relatively stable, at least to the observer's eye. This appearance of permanence, though, is ultimately an illusion: the sense of sureness created by the end-stopped lines is undercut by the fact that each line is trying to describe the same thing and in some measure failing, thereby necessitating the next line. In this way the lines themselves, like the river, are "all content no meaning. "They are the various long sighs, clickings, and pockets of the speaker's (or self's) stream of consciousness, itself reflected in and by the actual river, "the force of it and the thingness of it identical."

In a poem like A. R. Ammons's "Corsons Inlet" (also describing erosion) the observer is always present and distinct, but Graham's river subsumes the observer. In addition to ' 'handfuls" and "limbs," it now acquires a "brown throat" (echoing the "brown god" of Eliot's "The Dry Salvages") and thus the capacity for "expression" that can eclipse the speaker's. That its speech is "all content no meaning" can be read in at least two ways: either "all content [and] no meaning" or "all content" (satisfied) "[that there is] no meaning." Each of these readings, though, requires that something be added to Graham's text; something important remains concealed. This is the dance of nondiscovery that, for Graham and others (like Amnions and Eliot) is poetry. Thus, just after describing the throat of the river and its enigmatic exhalation ("all content no meaning"), the poet focuses on her own respiratory and poetic capacities: "I put my / breath back out / onto the scented immaterial. How the invisible / roils." As her breath helps constitute the invisible air that roils like the river, the poet is linked to the river in a Whitmanesque moment of identification. Hence "Notes on the Reality of the Self," where the self is embodied in a river.

Toward the end of the poem Graham hints more directly at this connection between the poet, the poem, and the river:

                       Is this body the one

  I know as me? How private these words? And these? Can you

  smell it, brown with little froths at the rot's lips,

  meanwhiles and meanwhiles thawing then growing soggy then

  the filaments where leaf-matter accrued round a

  pattern, a law, slipping off, precariously, bit by bit,

  and flicks, and swiftnesses suddenly more water than not.

The opening lines are perhaps the sort of thing we had first expected from a poem titled "Notes on the Reality of the Self," although the body here turns out, it seems, to be at least as much the river's, which has been coming into being throughout the poem (it now has "lips" to go with its other body parts), as the poet's own. The words uttered by the body seem private, and yet they are shared. Eventually even what is sealed and solidified ("a law") thaws, grows soggy, and is washed away in the river's current, "suddenly more water than not." The lips belong to "rot," and thus have as much to do with decomposition as with composition. Nothing is sealed off from erosion, errancy, decay. Even the laws that seemed absolute, even the absolute formulations concerning the nature of reality that Graham quotes throughout Materialism, are subject to these processes. Indeed, the placement of bits and pieces of them throughout her volume exemplifies and perhaps contributes to just this process.

After the Tractatus, Wittgenstein felt that he had solved all the problems of philosophy. He later came to realize that he hadn't, that language can always make new and impossible demands, to which we must remain alert and responsive. In Zettel he writes of the experience (crucial to Graham's poetry) of being multilingual: "Being acquainted with many languages prevents us from taking quite seriously a philosophy which is laid down in the forms of any one" ([section]323), but we must be on guard as well, he says, against allowing our multilinguism itself to produce strong prejudices, to cast the spell of a particular picture. The Tractatus had cast just such a spell over Wittgenstein himself, a spell the combating of which required a responsible resistance not only to the demands and potential traps of language but to the pull of absolutism as well. In other words, Wittgenstein recognized that the very forces he sought to defeat constituted an integral part of his own work. Similarly, Graham's poetry resists the absolute formulations of Western philosophy while at the same time integrating them, refusing to be charmed by the formulations themselves or by the idea that she could possibly escape them. This "Notes on the Reality of the Self" concludes:

  The nature of goodness the mind exhales.

  I see myself. I am a widening angle of

  and nevertheless and this performance has rapidly-

  nailing each point and then each next right point, interlocking,

  correct, correct again, each Tightness snapping loose,

  floating, hook in the air, swirling, seed-down,

  quick--the evidence of the visual henceforth--and henceforth,


These exhalations of the mind mimic the activities of the river: they jar things loose from their banks, sending them forth, bobbing and errant, while at the same time producing sedimentation. Whereas in Erosion Graham was mesmerized by what the erosion of the right word shuts, throughout Materialism she is enthralled by how each right word, each right and meticulous formulation, snaps loose. Despite the difference between shutting and loosening, they seem similar features of a river, stable and dynamic. In an environment characterized primarily by motion, things "hook in the air," catch, and then snap loose again.

One might ordinarily think of thought as the product of generations of intellectual inheritance, as a process by which things are snapped into place, ordered, and systematized, not snapped loose, set adrift. Yet both are vital to thought's constitution. The snapping loose of words, concepts, and propositions, that is, is not antithetical to thought but the work of thought itself. The italicized fragments in these lines are snippets of philosophical argument dislodged from their moorings, gnawed, swallowed, and digested by the river's ceaseless motion. As the speaker walks alongside the river, gathering phrases and taking notes, it seems, for a philosophical poem, the river itself suddenly becomes the poem: "all content no meaning." Each point nailed is also a snapping loose, each shutting an opening; this is the restless content-ment of both the river and human language.

The final poem of Materialism, "The Surface" (143), eddies back to the volume's start, again describing the river's "re- / arrangements, chill enlightenments, tight-knotted / quickenings / and loosenings." The first 21 of its 23 lines constitute a single meandering sentence that likens the surface of the river to the surface of the poet's attention, while underneath these surfaces there lies "the slowed-down drifting / permanences / of the cold / bed." This phrase strikingly recalls Wittgenstein's geological metaphor, where the ground that we formerly thought immovable consists instead of just such "drifting / permanences." As William Bronk put it, "Earth and rocks of the earth used to be / our metaphor for unchanging--little we knew" (58).

Swarm is, undoubtedly, Graham's most difficult book. What are we to make of poems that, in their arrangement on the page, often look like ruins? While Willard Spiegelman admits that Swarm "continues to baffle or elude" him ("Talking" 183), his insightful criticism provides a good place to begin making a case for Swarm. He once wrote of Graham's penchant for "gaps, blanks, lacunae, dismembered sentences, [and] occasionally hallucinated fragments" ("Nineties" 233), and this little catalog is Swarm all over.

Avrum Stroll refers to Wittgenstein's later writings as a "broken text" that is "non-systematic, rambling, digressive, discontinuous, interrupted thematically and marked by rapid transitions from one subject to another" (93). While I would hesitate to call the Investigations "rambling" or even completely "non-systematic," Stroll's concept of the "broken text" has merit in that it distinguishes Wittgenstein's from "more standard, discursive forms of writing in which ideas are coherently organized and disseminated in larger units," forms of writing, that is, that display a certain architectonic confidence, a surety of design. Wittgenstein renounces any such claim to mastery in the preface to the Investigations when he refers to "all the defects of a weak draughtsman" (v) that characterize his book. He could not transpose the confidence of his architectural design for his sister's house to his later philosophical writings. This is not to say, however, that those writings are any less precise than the details of that design, Indeed, part of the precision of the Investigations is its own propensity for various and at times seemingly haphazard movements. "It often strikes us," writes Wittgenstein in Zettel, "as if in grasping meaning the mind made small rudimentary movements, like someone irresolute who does not know which way to go--i.e. it tentatively reviews the field of possible applications" ([section] 33). These small, rudimentary movements of the mind, though, while irresolute, are neither arbitrary nor chaotic; as Stroll phrases it, "The use of the broken text is generally not accidental but purposive" (94). These sorts of movements, of course, direct us back to Graham, to her sentence fragments, gaps, and brief numbered sections, as if the poems had caught the dis-ease of the mind and could now proceed only via small, rudimentary movements and tentative reviews.

One might think that such broken text, which assembles units in bits and pieces rather than according to readily recognizable patterns, would be insufficient for the purposes of philosophical or poetic composition. But history, of course, has often suggested otherwise. Just as Graham's form of broken text has precedents in such precursors as Pound and Dickinson, so Wittgenstein's Investigations was preceded by Kierkegaard's Philosophical Fragments and Nietzsche's aphoristic assemblages. For Pound and Dickinson, the words often look like more or less dense clusters on the page, simultaneously held together and breaking apart, expressing in a poetic gesture both the strength and fragility of human thought and language. For Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, ideas and concepts teeter and veer, refusing to congeal into a system while at the same time (or by virtue thereof) attaining a coherence that makes up in maneuverability what it lacks in stability. Both Graham and Wittgenstein, then, inherit styles that appear to be broken or chaotic but nevertheless possess order and purpose.

Peter Miller writes of his astonishment on learning that ants are not, in fact, intelligent individuals, but rather depend on a scattered collective intelligence. He asks:

  How do the simple actions of individuals add up to the complex

  behavior of a group? How do hundreds of honeybees make a critical

  decision about their hive if many of them disagree? What enables a

  school of herring to coordinate its movements so precisely it can

  change direction in a flash, like a single, silvery organism? (130)

In addition to ants, honeybees, and herring, he writes of starlings, wildebeests, locusts, fireflies, and, referring to recent attempts by humans to mimic this organizational intelligence, new methods in truck routing. Could he have added language to this list? Wittgenstein's later philosophy is built largely on the notion that the meaning of a word is its use, that isolated in a vacuum, it means nothing, or cannot even be a word. To understand the meanings of words one must master the technique of a language, and that is a highly complex, protean pattern that, like a river, is always shifting and changing its shape, breaking, shutting, and snapping loose, and yet for all that remaining relatively stable. According to Miller, swarm intelligence works by "simple creatures following simple rules, each one acting on local information. No ant sees the big picture" (132). This emphasis on local information corresponds to Wittgenstein's insistence that ordinary usage will suffice in rendering the meaning of a word, that philosophical questing after a "big picture," or ultimate meaning, will produce not meaning but confusion. "It is as if' I know' did not tolerate a metaphysical emphasis," he writes (On Certainty [section]482).

  "When a predator strikes a school offish," writes Miller, the group

  is capable of scattering in patterns that make it almost impossible

  to track any individual. [The school] might explode in a flash,

  create a kind of moving bubble around the predator, or fracture into

  multiple blobs, before coming back together and swimming away. (141)

In the swarm, then, the ability to break is a virtue. Substitute language for school of fish and philosopher for predator, and this sounds a lot like Wittgenstein's recollection of his and Russell's agonizing over the tendency of language to repeatedly make new and impossible demands, frustrating logical analysis again and again. Of course, in the end, the predator often enough comes away with something nourishing to show for its efforts, though the school survives the attack.

I offer the idea of language as a swarm neither as a solution to a problem nor as an explanation, but rather simply as a picture of the bit-by-bit formation of our systems of knowledge, a picture to be placed alongside Wittgenstein's and Graham's versions of such formations, versions that, while they may differ in aim, rationale, and other respects, share at least the crucial affirmation of errancy's role in the generation of meaning. Of course, to say "Language can or might be viewed like this" is not to say "Language is really this." Wittgenstein is reported to have remarked that to cook a person at 200 degrees Centigrade until all the water evaporates and to say that what remains is all the person really is, would be, at the least, misleading (Lectures 24).

Graham's Swarm invites us to consider plays on its title: war and storm, for instance, as the poems often look as though one or the other had blown through them; shore, perhaps, as the poems seem perched on a threshold where language disintegrates into the unknown; and form, of course, as a literary property to which the poems seem dedicated even as they erode it. These words make up a sort of swarm themselves, as do the poems in the volume, poems where Graham traces, exposes, and attempts to manipulate (though she is just as often manipulated by) those fault lines of language that enable it to shift and, occasionally, quake. "What isn't true but must be believed?" she asks in a poem dated and titled "5/3/98" (32), and "answers" the question thus: "What isn't but must be." The period would seem to imply that this is an answer to the question just asked, but it is also simply the question itself rewritten with two words left out. The gap is where "true" formerly resided, and the space for "believed" at the end of the formulation has been lopped off by the period. It is not so much an answer, then, as a mutilation or dissolving of the question. If we try to interpret it, we run up against the lacuna, staring back at us as persistently as Nietzsche's abyss. It is something that by its very nature isn't there, but must be.

The poem continues: "How strange. A mind made up." For Wittgenstein a system of beliefs, a mind, is made up bit by bit, constructed piecemeal, and he and Graham wonder at this and alertly resist any explanation of the matter under the aegis of behaviorism or constructivism. While such theories certainly account for some aspects of social and psychological phenomena, explaining away the strangeness of what they study discards a sizable portion of it. How strange that a mind should be made up, constructed bit by bit, but also how strange that a mind should be made up like a face--cosmetically, with the intent to enhance and conceal; and also how strange that a mind should be made up in the sense of resolved. How strange, even, that a mind should be made up in fiction, as in a story.

There are 16 poems called "Underneath" seemingly scattered at random throughout Swarm. Some have specific titles, others just numbers. The series, then, is another instance of the swarm. If it seems arbitrarily assembled, even chaotic, a swarm, as we've seen, is a kind of order agile and flexible enough to incorporate chaos. In fact, incorporating chaos (that ability to break randomly, for instance) perhaps gives the swarm its greatest strength. "Underneath (13)" begins: "needed explanation." Appearing on the 102nd of the volume's 110 pages, it seems to cast a backward glance on the volume as a whole. Throughout Swarm various speakers demand explanations of several things, from lines of Emily Dickinson poems to fundamental philosophical and mathematical concepts: "Explain door ajar" (55), "explain accident" (64),"Explain two are // Explain not one" (10), and so on. These demands, in some respect, are asking for explanations of things that form our "collective belief" and therefore are less subject to explanation than they are the very ground that allows for it. As Wittgenstein writes in the first remark of the Investigations: "Explanations come to an end somewhere," where "somewhere" is the bedrock of our activity. Similarly, in On Certainty he writes, "At some point one has to pass from explanation to mere description" ([section]189). The voices in Swarm demanding explanations are variously stubborn, ironic, innocent, and heartbroken. Wittgenstein maintains that our "life consists in [our] being content to accept many things" ([section]344), but the voices of Swarm seem to have lost, or to be on the brink of losing, just such contentment; their "judgment" therefore threatens to "go all to pieces" ([section]420). By the end of the volume they are understandably exhausted: "needed explanation" is as much a sigh as it is a demand, a weary exhalation that results from pertinaciously making demands that cannot be met. The many gaps in the rest of the poem, then, can be read as the necessary pauses between breaths of someone who is fatigued from despair.

Despair, though, is itself incomplete. The speaker of "Underneath (13)" declares, "I could not visualize the end // the tools that paved the way broke. "These tools might be likened either to Hegelian concepts or to certain poetic techniques, so their being broken seems at first glance lamentable. Graham herself says in an interview with Thomas Gardner, "I feel like I'm writing as part of a group of poets--historically--who are potentially looking at the end of the medium itself as a vital part of their culture" (qtd. in Regions of Unlikeness 215). This end, she maintains, is to be ascribed just as much to poets shunning "mystery and power" as to larger cultural transformations. The result, it would seem, is a broken-down and increasingly useless set of tools. But if Graham laments this fact, she also sees in it a possibility. She acknowledges her own complicity in the process of breakdown (as one of that "group of poets") but sees it as ultimately desirable; after referring to the broken tools, the speaker flatly declares, "there is nothing wrong with the instrument." We might read this as a preemptive response to inevitable criticisms of Swarm's broken form. The tools of language are indeed broken, but the instrument of the voice, of poetry, is in some way enabled by this breakdown; the broken tool becomes, or is, the instrument. To break is a virtue of the swarm no less than of poetry itself and poetic tradition. Poetry does not require that language function entirely as a utility. In fact, in this stage of its development poetry might necessarily presuppose that language always already is (and was) broken, that its being broken is what enables poetry in the first place, less as a means of fixing language than as a means of voicing and affirming the conditions of language--conditions that resemble our own in both their limitedness and variability and seem in constant, even desperate, need of explanations that are either shut off or snapped loose.

The title poem of The Errancy, the volume that precedes Swarm, begins with a continuation: "Then the cicadas again like kindling that won't take." It goes on:

  The struck match of some Utopia we no longer remember

                                         the terms of--

  the rules. What was it was going to be abolished, what restored? (4)

Fast on the heels of and perhaps in distinct opposition to these unre-membered terms--"what was going to be abolished," if "some utopia" is Plato's, was, among other things, poetry--come the numerous sounds of a seaside landscape: a foghorn, announcements of "unhurried arrivals," the "virgin-shrieks" of gulls, "subaqueous pasturings." That the utopia is recalled as a "struck match" implies an apocalypse, as if a Utopia that would abolish poetry would abolish the world as we know it, but the flame does not or did not take, and those seaside sounds rush into the poem as, indeed, the poem itself rushes in. The foghorn, the announcements, and the gulls are all errant marks of sound that partially constitute the errancy, the definiteness of the article set off against the indefiniteness implied by the term that follows it. That the foghorn and the arrival announcements are no doubt purposive does not preclude them from being a part of this errancy, for any purposive sound is also necessarily errant, or "slippery" and "delinquent," like the cries of the gulls. The sounds in the opening lines include artificial sounds, the sounds of animals, and the sounds of the sea, those "subaqueous pasturings" that are, in turn, likened to handwriting and so linked back to the artificial. The handwriting of the sea continuously stirs up a froth that both erases the handwriting itself and is the condition on which the handwriting is predicated. The broken text of Graham's poem (its beginning with a continuation, the bit-by-bit assemblage of its syntax, its frequent ellipses and dashes, and the period-less "sentence" of its final 56 lines) affirms the errancy of language over against the thought of "some Utopia" that would necessarily be cut clean from it in order to secure its existence.

"A context," writes Derrida, "is never absolutely closed, constraining, determined, completely filled" (217). This is to say that a context (or any text) is never completely private: "A structural opening allows it to transform itself or to give way to another context." This opening can be labeled in a variety of ways (freedom, perhaps, or intertextuality), but what is key is that it does not so much threaten meaning as guarantee it, provide a way or current where meaning can travel: "Every mark has a force of detachment which not only can free it from such and such a determined context, but ensures its principle of intelligibility and its mark structure." Without this force the mark would not be free to go forth in the world; it would be closed, sealed--not a mark at all. And while this force no doubt enables the mark to go astray, it also ensures its intelligibility. Derrick's positing of the mark's force is thus akin to Heidegger's assertion that we are always already thrown into the world. Like language, human beings are at the same time both destined and errant, a condition that Derrida calls our "destinerrancy" (218), or the destinerrancy of the mark. Wittgenstein's assertion at the outset of the Investigations that the meaning of a word is its use presupposes just this understanding of the structure of a mark. Far from concerning "utility," this assertion concerns the very nature of language as always making new and impossible demands and, as such, always loosening.

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