Maria Damon

Beginnings: Introductions, Explanations, Forewords

In order to dramatize more fully the functioning of "intergenerational haunting" 
and its somatic and aesthetic dimensions, and to relate it to American popular 
culture and vernacular traditions, I also refer to the explanation given by Geoffrey 
Wolfe, director of the Broadway production Bring in Da Noise, Bring in Da Funk, 
about the power of tapdance.  He claims that encoded in the bodies of generations 
of Americans of African descent, lost languages and experiences make their 
appearance in the present through tap.  And there is a certain family resemblance, 
via the mechanics of dissociation, between tapping and typing: rhythms that
express the most profound emotional and psychological states are effected
by the extremities --fingers and toes respectively--, while the upper body
and face remain relatively impassive or masklike (in the case of tap, the
masks are often of the stylized, crying-clown variety).  We can, moreover,
link this tap-typing to the tapping that assures seance participants that
they have succeeded in communicating with the "other side," and with the
spasmodic gestures that move the ouija board toward letters forming
messages from the dead, from spirits, from angels who bring grist for
poetry.  Hannah Weiner's work --her written records of clairvoyant
experience -- is symptomatic of these kinds of creatively transformative
traumatic utterances --and it has the same eerie sort of disembodied
mechanical effect as tap, in which fragments of inadmissable history orbit
in performative play.  Weiner's field of play is not the Broadway stage,
the dancefloor nor the round seance table but her own forehead, and any
other surface where invisible words can be read, and written, by her.

Again, the concept of dissociation as a psychological and a spiritual state is 
useful here.  Dissociation of body parts from other body parts (feet moving 
while face is impassive, or the powerful metaphor of the valley of dry bones 
as one of genocidal trauma healed through spiritual command), of body from 
mind (that Hannah Weiner can "see" words on her forehead from the inside implies 
that she "herself" is sufficiently detached from her body, can withdraw far enough 
inside of it, to be able to read it from the inside out; I, for example, cannot see my 
own forehead without a mirror, because I am too full of myself), or of content 
from affect (a horrific narrative described in flat language or tone, or the
tickertape effect of Weiner's writing on the page) all hover around some
central trope of displacement, disorientation, dispossession,
disenfranchisement -- and at the same time, of empowerment on a different
register, as if one were being emptied out in order to be the vessel of
historical signification.

The most important feature of Weiner's writing, for her and for her
readership, is her clairvoyance, which is explained in brief prefaces by
Weiner and others to many of the books written after 1970, which is the
date she identifies as the beginning of her becoming "extremely psychic."
Here, for example, is the note opening Clairvoyant Journal (Lenox MA: Angel
Hair Books, 1978).  I quote these notes somewhat exhaustively because part
of my agenda is to familiarize those who might be new to her radically
defamiliarized and defamiliarizing language; but also because they are
beginnings, and as such they function as frames that contextualize and to
some extent legitimize the work:

	I SEE words on my forehead  IN THE AIR
	on other people  on the typewriter   on the
	page  These appear in the text in CAPITALS
	or italics

The cover shows a warmly smiling Weiner with the words "I SEE WORDS"
painted or magic markered across her forehead.  And here, several years
later, is the even more decentered prefatory explanation in Spoke (1984)
-- which is a title resonant with Theresa Cha's Dictée (she who is spoken)
as a reference to clairaudience or other forms of automatic-writing/

	All these on my forehead words are seen EXCEPT BIG LARGE
	discovered PAGE nineteen eighty one and class Radcliffe spoke
	In Nijole's House (1981), a publisher's straightforward explanation in the
	third person

All the words in this book were seen by Hannah Weiner first on her forehead
-- she sees them from within -- in very small script, in several word lines,
as indicated by the line breaks.  These words appear in the text in upper
and lower case.  The words printed in the text as capitals were seen on her
forehead as larger script VERY BIG WORDS or were seen on the page in big
print interrupting the line that she was then writing down.   Some words
appeared in color, some in light, some in pencil line.  This process is
similar to that used in writing Clairvoyant Journal and Little
Books/Indians, though there are some WILD variations
is followed by Weiner's own pithy, in some ways much clearer, note:

	I ams a clairvoyant
	The preface to Sixteen (Windsor VT: Awede, 1983 is likewise fragmented and

[in red print on a semi-transparent cellophane page through which the rest
of the intro can be (never completely) apprehended, as if the whole genre
of "explanatory gloss" were under erasure]

	introduction as class i see words between lines   on sign
	Alex Hladky is dead, burial, movement leader as white as
	could be as seen I words, sojourn PERIO
	the following ALL SEEN AS WORDS BEFORE i
	write mother IT DOWN IN THE BOOK    AS CLASS
	the I Ching THROW said 16 the number Enthusiasm
	S U I C Iin a carD E following the change 17 on
	Alex Hladky's death late fall 1982   I was promised
	to him just a little bit everyone all
	otherwise the piece as usual was following orders en
	                                                    the number
	                                                             THE SAME
	sixteen sentences seen this summer 82
	AS ABOVE period

As far as I can make out from reading between the lines (literally) in this
text (and part of traumatic consciousness is the literalizing of metaphor,
as in the system of Dante's Hell), Weiner was writing a piece based on
sixteen sentences clairvoyantly seen but somehow based on Hexagram 16 of
the I Ching when this process --a form of dictated but also aleatory
writing--was interrupted by the --highly controlled (in that a suicide
represents a subject's decision to take control of the great unknowable) --
traumatizing death of Alex Hladky, a movement leader who is white (but not
a leader of the white movement, i.e. aryan brotherhood or other)???  The
writing itself mirrors the process of interruption, of shock, of the
chaotic nature of creation and death, of their non-sequential
(paratactical) relationality, in the swirl of Jewish postmodernity.  Hence
my dwelling on the prefatory notes as phenomena of
pseudo-AND-legitimat/ing-explanation.  In Gerard Genette's exhaustive
taxonomy of "paratexts" (extra-textual material such as titles, subtitles,
prefaces, jacket and catalogue copy), these "authorial prefaces" serve to
direct the reader's attention to the importance of the text, to show
him/her how to read it, and, in this case, to offer authenticating evidence
of Weiner's state of mind.  That is, even in paratextual writing she is
decentered and non-linear; thus she must be the "real thing."
But the real what?  Clairvoyant, trauma victim, mentally ill
person?  And if she is any and/or all of these, can she also be a real
"writer," that is, someone with an intentional aesthetic strategy? An
interview she gave the journal Lucy and Jimmy's House of K indicates that
she is indeed a "real writer" in this sense, and that her fragmented text
and indeed her clairvoyant/ hallucinatory experience have been understood
by her as literary events (although it is not clear how much this interview
was "doctored" by the anonymous interviewer to create the semblance of
linear intentionality in her spoken prose): as she articulates it in this
interview, her goal in using multiple voices and typefaces is to capture
the "complete mind" at work in all its non-linear, self-interrupting
complexity; it is simultaneously how she experiences her mental process and
how she purposively and aesthetically represents that process.  In the
recent spate of literary-theoretical writing on trauma, this intending-and-
not-intending, knowing-and-not-knowing,revealing-and-not- revealing perplex 
is central to the notion of theliterary-as-traumatic (Caruth and Hartman).  
Weiner's decentered prefaces legitimate her as a not-knower; the interview, 
published in an obscure, out of print 'zine, legitimates her as a knower, if not 
of (her own) trauma, at least of literary intentionality.
Others are enrolled to legitimate her as a literary creature as
well, in what Genette calls "allographic" prefaces (prefaces written by
persons other than the author of the main text), which can say things not
permitted or appropriate to the author.  Accordingly, in later volumes such
as WEEKS (1990), wholly coherent and analytic prefaces by known poets with
academic positions (notably Charles Bernstein) legitimate Weiner while
deeply respecting, and working to preserve, her strangeness.  Prefaces such
as these guide readers through increasingly dizzying texts like advisory
warnings and analyses rolled into one --as Genette would say, they tell the
reader how to read these particular texts.  In WEEKS, a collaboration with
photographer Barbara Rosenthal, typographical designer Miekal And
superimposes Weiner's simultaneously numbing and relentlessly manic stream
of media cliches ("The senate acted in a very radical way    It was rainy
out and the street was slick at the time of the accident    That burger you
had for lunch may give you more than indigestion   You get two games for
one buck but you gotta be in it to win it") over a ghostly gray series of
"Weeks 1, Weeks 2,...Weeks 50" forming a monotonous and, as Bernstein
points out, ominous subtext; while Rosenthal's blurry photos from the tv
screen make Jackie Onassis, the Ayatollah Khomeini and the "Rev. Al
Sharpton" look eerily alike.  Actually, despite the extreme "messiness" of
the book's look, this volume is perhaps the most ideologically accessible
of Weiner's oeuvre.  Thus as instruction, Bernstein's commentary is in some
ways redundant, though it theorizes astutely on the scary, "quiet
desperation" evinced by this presentation of insidious, "ambient ideology."

The covers, front and back, of Clairvoyant Journal also work to
both preserve Weiner's strangeness and to make her work accessible to an
aesthetically trained or, alternately, baffled readership: on the front, as
mentioned above, a warmly smiling Weiner is shown with "I SEE WORDS"
painted on her forehead in a way that renders playful what must be a
considerably painful and frightening experience of being different. Her
friend Jackson Mac Low, known for his poetry based on chance operations,
writes on the back cover:

	Hannah Weiner is the only clairvoyant I know, or that I've ever known, as
	far as I know.  She is also the only person on record -- or so she believes
	as a result of her extensive investigations into both medical and
	parapsychic literature --to have experienced the particular phenomenon this
	journal represents, that of being "spoken to" by several persons, most of
	them seemingly external to herself, by means of printed words in various
	colors and sizes that appear both on other persons and objects and on her
	own forehead (in such a way that she can perceive them from within).  Hers,
	however, might have been but a "remarkable case," were it not for the fact
	that she is an artist.  Her achievement --and it is a considerable one
	--lies in her having developed a specific literary form through which to
	convey her remarkable experience.

Like Bernstein in WEEKS, Mac Low offers a kind of custodial mediation,
explaining the significance of Weiner's contribution to contemporary
letters.  The two men act as cultural mediators in ways often reserved
either for women (in the case of, for example, American Indian interfaces
with Anglo-American culture, which has pretty much stripped Indian men of
opportunities for meaningful livelihood such as traditional warriorship
etc), or, alternately and more a propos here, for sons of immigrant women
(see Henry Roth's Call It Sleep, for example; Allen Ginsberg's "Kaddish for
Naomi Ginsberg;" or any number of David Antin's talk-poems ) who must
explain to the mainstream the unreadable and hence pathologized language of
their mothers or older female relatives.  Understanding the mainstream's
assumption that these women are pathologically marked, and also
understanding the need resist that assumption (and understanding to some
degree, or at least empathizing with, the undecipherable signs these women
produce), their tactic here is to bestow on these productions or
performances an aesthetic value, and/or to use them as parables of "the
human condition," the workings of language and communication in a larger
sense, or other meta-problematics that downplay (but do not erase entirely)
gender and ethnicity as crucial factors in both society's misreadings or
their own more sympathetic mediations.  Without denying the reality and
painfulness of Weiner's mental illness, they --as Bernstein's obituary for
Weiner in the St. Mark's Church Poetry Project Newsletter evinces --work
against a glib reduction of her literary output to a mere record of
symptoms.  According to such a reading, her efforts to write, her calling
as a poet, succeeded in spite of the vast demands her mental illness made
on her resources; she becomes a hero --a survivor.

Some women experimental poets, contemporaries of Weiner's, are
suspicious of the kind of male custody of female madness they see in their
male counterparts' support of Weiner.  They see it as playing into the
romance of madness and specifically a stereotyped oracular female madness
that denies the purposive intelligence of creative women such as
themselves.  Part of what I hope to show in this paper is the significant
role that social power dynamics and historical experience play in the
experience, representation and reception of Weiner's work, and this gender
debate is germane to that argument.  It is notable that the one book of
Weiner's that has been published by a female-owned press dedicated to
publishing the work of women has the most "packaging;" four blurbs on the
back cover by heavy hitters in the language poetry community (Barrett
Watten, Jessica Grim, Peter Inman and Ron Silliman) as well as an
authorially written bio and the several lines of introduction we've come to
ASTRAL" (Silent Teachers/Remembered Sequel, 9).  Just as Weiner in her own
prefaces demonstrates the authenticity of her strange experiences with
language (because her use of language in these prefaces is strange), others
attest to her literary skill, her wit, her "chronicling of minority
reality" and "extraordinary ear for language" and her achievement of making
"language writing here [become] the kind of realism we always wanted."

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