Nothing Doing

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Jim Jarmusch’s Paterson begins with the triple-namesake-protagonist’s wife Laura waking from a dream that the couple had twins. Through the rest of the film, Paterson sees twins everywhere—crossing the street, on the bus, in a bar. Is Laura’s dream the origin of the pattern or a part of it? From Paterson’s perspective, I mean. (And by “pattern” I mean “coincidence,” even though they’re opposites.)

Laura herself is obsessed with black-and-white patterns, with which she progressively fills her domestic world, their visual takeover of the film dovetailing eventually with the question of whether the patterns, routines, and omens with which the narrative is suffused are meaningful and/or illusory. I kept waiting for seeming portents of disaster to be realized—an early suggestion that something bad might happen to the couple’s dog, an unfortunate ending to dozens of laboriously decorated black-and-white cupcakes—but when the actual disaster comes, the upshot is nil, disappearing into poetry’s primary business with the singular and non-continuous. In fact, the disaster happens to poetry, which can only be alleviated by itself, like licking a wound.

The poetry in the film was written by Ron Padgett, but the whole thing puts me in mind of Rae Armantrout:

Meaning—which one word
was unable to absorb—

splashed onto everything.

That’s when humans were created—

those who confuse
intelligibility with purpose. (9-14)

— “Pronouncements,” Next Life (2007)

With purpose, Paterson confuses its intelligibility while calling out the viewer’s confusion of pattern-recognition and meaning.

Last fall, I heard a talk at UPenn’s Kelly Writers House by British poet, scholar, and author Peter Middleton. His most recent book, Physics Envy: American Poetry and Science in the Cold War and After (2015), considers American poetry’s responses to the atomizing forces and popular reception of science following WWII. In contrast to that scholarly work, his UPenn talk was a creative, somewhat personal treatment of the unknown (and one origin of these serial thoughts of mine), which begins with his worrying, “Has the entirety of the universe become my space of inquiry?”

Now that cartography, say, is pretty complete, he asks where unknowns are still hiding in our seemingly exhaustive contemporary world, and what sort of “cognitive bootstrapping” they require. One bootstrap might be aesthetic, he says—particularly, poetic; specifically, the difficult sort. To illustrate, when he thinks himself to an edge or impasse, he throws a rope over with a poem.

In one, he recalls an experience in an MRI scanner:

Thought is a measurable field of fat
and magnetism. The fat that remembered
then let the atoms of inner thought
fall back relaxed into non-alignment.
I is an invariant element to this physics. (8-9)

— “The Personal Poem,” Tell Me About It (2002)

Quantum and cosmic phenomena, as we so far understand them, are irreconcilable. How odd that thought—the “measurable field of fat” that stands between them—is subject to, and to unknown degrees determined by, the respective and/or potentially collective laws of both. We call their aggregate properties “physics,” which we invent and/or discover with our physics-driven cognition, making ours a recursive, closed-loop reading of the world. The human brain, then, is the keystone conjoining and dividing our universe, where:

“God” is a name for words for itself


“The imagination, the one reality / In this imagined world” (Wallace Stevens, “Another Weeping Woman”).

Since our physical, phenomenological, and social realms of knowledge and experience are interdependent, how might we break out of their web in order to see them individually or strangely? It might be the case that either our understanding of the brain or our grasp of the cosmos recapitulates the other, and it’s language that pushes us further into both—if we can bend, torque, and look behind it for what it’s concealing, we might discover how it’s holding us back. As a space of inquiry, the entirety of the universe that includes us might be useless, but Middleton looks for or creates “recursive splice sites,” cheat codes in the language with which we apprehend the world. I believe he’s working on expanding his talk into a book, and I can’t wait to read it.

In the February issue of Poetry, there’s a poem by Tom Pickard that is perfect in a way that made me furious in the way only a perfect poem can. I read it in my car outside my daughter’s ballet class, and then threw the book at the windshield.


walking up John Street
thinking of you

I saw a slash of sea
between houses

and felt—as always,
no matter mood,
its or mine—

as though
it was the source
of language

and language
the source of itself

Language as the source of itself is the crux of Modernism and aesthetic theory since. How many more times does it need to be said? We feel like most things have been depicted, but language is combinatoric—we’d need every arrangement of every word and syntactic hinge to demonstrate and represent its capacity. So, too, a theory of everything might require everything to contain it:

Everything that stays
once meaning has cleared out

is true? (13-15)

—Rae Armantrout, “Theory of Everything”

Those italics are everything, rendering “true” a foreign word. No one is better at depicting and then seeing around the outside of our dumbness than Rae Armantrout.