Bob Perelman: On "Ketjak"

My focus will be "the new sentence," a term that is both descriptive of a writing procedure and, at times, a sign of literary-political proselytizing....The term was coined by Ron Silliman....A new sentence is more or less ordinary itself, but gains its effect by being placed next to another sentence to which it has tangential relevance: new sentences are not subordinated to a larger narrative frame nor are they thrown together at random. Parataxis is crucial: the autonomous meaning of a sentence is heightened, questioned, and changed by the degree of separation or connection that the reader perceives with regard to the surrounding sentences. This is on the immediate formal level. From a larger perspective, the new sentence arises out of an attempt to redefine genres; the tension between parataxis and narrative is basic.

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One device that is crucial to his initial work with the new sentence is a highly developed structure of repetition. Ketjak is written in series of expanding paragraphs where the sentences of one paragraph are repeated in order in subsequent paragraphs with additional sentences inserted between them, recontextualizing them. As the paragraphs double, the space between the reoccurrence of the sentences doubles and the context from which they reemerge grows thicker. In this, they have reminded some in the language movement of characters in a novel. But the narrative effect is more peculiar as the sentences keep reappearing against different sentences. E.g.: "Look at that room filled with fleshy babies, incubating. We ate them." In the next paragraph: "Look at that room filled with fleshy babies. A tall glass of tawny port. We ate them." Next paragraph: "Look at that room filled with fleshy babies, incubating. Points of transfer. A tall glass of tawny port. The shadows between the houses leave the earth cool and damp. A slick gaggle of ambassadors. We ate them." The new sentence questions anaphora, so that reference is not guaranteed to extend beyond sentence boundaries. Thus "We ate," not babies, not port, not ambassadors, but only "them." On the other hand, Silliman is clearly enjoying the juxtapositions on his verbal or virtual smorgasbord. In moments like these, he seems to be playing a kind of fort-da game with readers' expectations for continuity.

New sentences imply continuity and discontinuity simultaneously, an effect that becomes clearer when they are read over longer stretches. In the following juxtaposition--"Fountains of the financial district spout soft water in a hard wind. She was a unit in a bum space, she was a damaged child"--we have switched subjects between the sentences: the child and the fountains need not be imagined in a single tableau. This effect of calling forth a new context after each period goes directly against the structural impatience that creates narrative. It's as if a film were cut into separate frames. But in a larger sense, girl and fountain are in the same social space. Throughout the book, Silliman insists on such connections as the one between the girl and the wider economic realities implied by the corporate fountains. The damage that has been done to her has to be read in a larger economic context.

But we don't focus on the girl: she is one facet of a complex situation; she is not singled out for novelistic treatment. There's a dimension of tact involved: she's not representative of the wrongs done to children, but she's not given the brushoff either. The degree of attention Silliman accords her can be read as analogous to the way one recognizes individuals in a crowd (as well as perceptions in a crowded urban setting), giving each a finite but focused moment of attention. This can be favorably compared to the generalized responses of Eliot and Wordsworth to London: phobia in the case of Eliot--"I had not thought death had undone so many"--and despairing scorn in the case of Wordsworth, for whom urbanization resulted in minds "reduced to an almost savage torpor." Of course, to compare Silliman to Eliot and Wordsworth can seem ill-proportioned to some; but if we can lay aside absolutist ideas of literary quality, then Silliman's writing can be read as an exemplary guide to contemporary urban life. The absence of an explicit plot serves it well in this capacity.

The new sentence, on the other hand, is defiantly unpoetic. Its shifts break up attempts at the natural reading of universal, authentic statements; instead they encourage attention to the act of writing and to the writer's multiple and mediated positions within larger social frames. The following is a small excerpt from Silliman's book-length poem, Ketjak:

Those curtains which I like above the kitchen sink. Imagined lives we posit in the bungalows, passing, counting, with another part of the mind, the phone poles. Stood there broke and rapidly becoming hungry, staring at the nickels and pennies in the bottom of the fountain. Dear Quine, sentences are not synonymous when they mean the same proposition. How the heel rises and ankle bends to carry the body from one stair to the next. This page is slower.

Making the sentence the basic unit of composition separates the writer from three widely held positions. First, it is arbitrary, driving a wedge between any expressive identity of form and content. What Silliman is doing goes directly against the grain of the poetics of "Projective Verse," where Olson gives primary place to Creeley's statement "FORM IS NEVER MORE THAN AN EXTENSION OF CONTENT." In Silliman's case, form is clearly primary. But, secondly, to avoid a self-expressive stance does not then throw the writer into the arms of a trans-individual language. Foucault's statement may apply to some positions in language writing, but not to Silliman's: "The philosopher is aware . . . [that he] does not inhabit the whole of his language like a secret and perfectly fluent god. Next to himself, he discovers the existence of another language that also speaks and that he is unable to dominate, one that strives, fails, and falls silent and that he cannot manipulate." Generating one sentence after another is, on the contrary, a sign of confident manipulation. A third distinction: to use the sentence as basic unit rather than the line is to orient the writing toward ordinary language use.

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Far from being fragments, his sentences derive from a coherent, wide-ranging political analysis. . . .Many of the sentences are themselves brief narratives, but more important is the overall frame. . .the Marxist master-narrative that sees commodification as a necessary stage that history must pass through. This master-narrative links what would otherwise be the very different levels of the sentences. . . .Silliman's sense of the broken integers produced by capitalism is inseparable from his commitment to the emergence of a transformed, materialist society.

Jerry Estrin on: "Ketjak"

"Waking in the dark now, more so each day, the year's slide. Numbers, Mind and Body. The partial function in the connective touch. You come at last into the realization as into a banquet room, domed perhaps but with chandeliers, that a lush ordering of events is no different than any other so that one might as well eat squid as tripe or plums, dressed in the regalia of tennis, the perceiving in the punchbowl reflection a costume as clownish as it is offensive. What is here. Red eye. The light has no right. Notational process, musical juncture."

Does your orientation invert through the suppression of the verb from "Numbers, Mind and Body"? You look around for a connection, producing scattered if waking notes. Perhaps you've been given a diary note, a fragmented perception of passing time, perhaps an assertion of progress: "more so each day", etc. Such connotations seem quite literal, a report of condition. "Numbers" as in reference to the sentence prosody, the "Numbers" which indicate where the sentences would appear -- so that the positive allusion plus the jingle of "Numbers" could tie in the calculated response to the time of the writing to time (in general? which time?), a proclaimed organization of time which tunes up the "Body" and the "Mind". Or perhaps "Numbers, Mind, and Body" can be read as ironic public relations. "The partial function" stands isolate, announcing itself, rejecting the connection with "Body" and "Mind", or the naming of such processes. Or perhaps it works as a unit in a list with no logical linking. Has a myth of continuity just been critiqued? The cluster of so many abstract nominals appear to refocus the argument, moving from the general to the specific. You expect some sort of resolution, and the writing appears to be gesturing in that direction, yet none occurs. So perhaps you can read this section as a mockery of finitude. But how did "You" get into a "banquet room"? How did the writer? -- perhaps by the "The partial function in the connective touch" which has been stationed in apposition, so that "You come at last" with its shifter pointing either at the reader or the writer seems to be there as a reward. The complete sentence coming after the noun phrase pulls the fragments into an articulated position, however convoluted by the intersecting metaphors, so that your dilemma ("Rhythm section of the Horns of the Dilemma" as Ron Silliman will write near the end of Ketjak) or language's openness or void is again labelled by the interrogative, "What is here" (or is it a question?), setting up the expectation of an answer which "Red eye" partially satisfies, both in its rhythmical relief, and in its anaphoric employment, throwing your mind back to "perceiving" -- as does "The light has no right", the assertion of consonance in "red" and "right", the semantic train set up by "reflection" "perceiving" "costume" all seeming to progress vertically toward "light", yet the negation coupled with the rhyme which focuses and isolates the physical properties of the words, cancels any closure: "The light has no right." etc.

From "Exorcise Your Monkey": Reading Ketjak. From The Difficulties (1985).