The Dihedrons Gazelle-Dihedrals Zoom by Leslie Scalapino
(The Post-Apollo Press, Sausalito, CA, 2010)
“Only Those Actions Occurring”: Leslie Scalapino’s The Dihedrons Gazelle-Dihedrals Zoom
Lesle Scalapino, who died early last year, opens The Dihedrons Gazelle-Dihedrals Zoom (a continuation of her novel Floats Horse-Floats or Horse-Flows) with an introduction explaining that she wrote the book by “leafing through Random House Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary choosing words by process of alexia, not as mental disorder but word-blindness: trance-like stream overriding meaning, choice, and inhibition.” Her initial goal, she writes, was “to bring about an unknown future” by way of a complex, syntactically expansive interrogation of narrative. (The book, like its first part, is billed as both fiction and poetry.) However, in the process of writing her “sensual exquisite corpses”—the prose units (with occasional dips into verse) that make up the book—Scalapino discovered that “there isn’t any future, isn’t any present”; rather, these event-clusters exist in another textual space altogether, as an ‘instant’ outside a past, present, or future, embodying a new, simultaneous tense. This is a difficult project to articulate, but for those familiar with her other works, it is a recognizable poetics. Like much of her poetry of the past twenty or so years, this book performs a panoptic analysis of events and their time through a continuous shift in perspective and tense. In Dihedrons, Scalapino has furthered her project by entering into even more “endless landscapes” of events and characters, both the fictional and nonfictional, where narrative in its usual sense (A to B to C) ceases to matter. In this regard, Scalapino’s effort is most like being in everyday life, where “narrative is from the outside always."
So how does this work? The book itself is divided into two sections, the first untitled, the second titled “Cromorne.” The first begins with an introduction describing the project, and ends with that same introduction recapitulated (with some changes) at the end in verse. Scalapino writes in the second version,
In the accumulating stream of events,
hybrids repeating parts of an event in different combinations,
the parts rearranged by imagination begin to pierce each other
single outlines and boundaries, the sense of infinite combinations are
The events Scalapino chooses (and invents) are patterned, with much variation, throughout the book. Some of the most important ones that move throughout the first section are an octopus performing fellatio on a woman, the escape of orphans, the 2009 protests and Twitter activities of Iranian students, Sarah Palin’s bid for the vice presidency, the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks, an escape from a plane, the CIA activities of the base runner (who’s also the octopus), the healthcare reform/death panel debate, and a woman’s memories of her father in World War II, to name a few. While section two resembles the first formally, it differs in its events (though we are told they happen simultaneous to part one), limiting itself mostly to the lives of the orphans. But in both sections, Scalapino creates several free-floating narrative hubs, which repeatedly establish and collapse the narrative “boundaries” normally present in fiction. By creating these interactive hubs, each as autonomous as it is subject to intervention, revision, or erasure, Scalapino attempts to realize a ‘timeless’ narrative space, in which all events happen at once, in an instant. In Dihedrons, there is no time; everything is always occurring. (The obvious comparison is to Gertrude Stein’s “continuous present.”) The point of all this muddying of normative boundaries and language, Scalapino writes, is to create a “paradise” free of restrictions of the clock. She writes toward the end of section one, “Therefore single events, that don’t exist anyway, are paradise—are at all (by such) and are paradise.” And later: “As sequence, in sequence, a single event is paradise.” The sensation of reading a novel unanchored by narrative convention, in which everything happens ‘at once’ and always, certainly seems paradisiacal to me. And like paradise, it seems equally impossible to reach on earth, if at all.
Several images by Jess [Collins], Masami Teraoka, Margaret Hofbeck, and Kiki Smith accompany the text but none, Scalapino writes (excepting Teraoka’s), have anything to do with the events described. While this seems true enough, it’s hard not to find Jess’s collages technically analog to Scalapino’s exquisite corpses or see the orphans’ faces in Smith’s spinsters. These images are more helpful as a technical compliments to Scalapino’s collages than as anything else. But their general indifference to the text (less so in the case of Smith) makes their presence feel somewhat flat to me. I am not convinced that their absence would lessen the book any more than I am that their presence improves it. Often, if anything, I found myself distracted by them. An intentional effect? Perhaps. It seems doubtful, and Scalapino does nothing to dissuade me from feeling this way. However, there are so few (fifteen in all) that it never seems so problematic as to lessen the text itself.
The narrative of the novel is quite complex. While the introduction is somewhat helpful, it takes some time before its ideas become clear. (I had to read the first thirty pages twice.) The highly elaborate syntax and word helixes, which often bucks univalent sense—and any authority other than that of the reader—in favor of endless meanings, might prove especially difficult to anyone unfamiliar with Scalapino’s work. Passages like
As boat-tailed grackle in air flow not mirroring boats below, is the bobby calf’s relation—the opposite of a bobby dazzler to sensation of time in the flower? Or/Oar is not existing (time). The old by not having ability have even as halve things with eyes sail up to them become bobby dazzlers. All of the flowers when radiolysis haven’t fear? Or/oar just not knowing.
might put a more casual reader off, especially if they’re in search of a novel with a recognizable and standard narrative. But passages like the above quote will become much clearer with some work—and a dictionary. A bobby calf, a young cow used for veal, is the opposite of a bobby dazzler, which is an English slang term for a well-dressed man; therefore “the time of the flower,” which I take to mean potentiality, would have quite a different meaning from one subject to the other. Radiolysis is, according to Wikipedia, “the dissociation of molecules by radiation”—an apt invocation considering the fate of the bobby calf.
Much of the book is an exploration of the violent exploitation of the innocent by those in power. From the orphans to the Iranian students, the persons and events Dihedrons explores all involve the terrible inequality that accompanies violence. There must always be a victim, which becomes almost unbearable for the book in part two. In blurbing the first part of this project, Floats Horse-Floats or Horse Flows, Rae Armantrout writes, “Like the one we know, this world is filled with disaster and violence. The difference is that here we don't see it coming; we can't hide behind dead verbiage; we can't brace ourselves." Alexia, the brain defect that prevents a person from being able to read that Scalapino’s book imitates, does just this: it prevents the reader from reading the signs before her until it’s too late. To replicate this effect in text, where much of the sense of the action comes too late, after its already happened, horrifies me, as I think Scalapino intended.
The second half of the book is a more direct exploration of the impact of violence on the innocent. The section deals primarily with a group of orphan girls who have been captured by a group of terrorists/fundamentalists/children soldiers. The girls are to be sold into sex slavery, and each is named after their destination (e.g. Dallas, Des Moines, etc.). It seems that these terrorists/slave traders are the same who committed—are about to commit—the Mumbai attacks. In any case, a struggle and escape (which is alluded to throughout section one) ensues over a crocodile pit, costing the lives of many of the children until the gazelle-dihedrals (whose role in the book is somewhat mysterious to me; they seem to serve a far more abstract, atmospheric purpose than the rest of the characters) swoop in to protect the remaining orphans. I cannot stress enough the flawlessness of this section. While retaining much of the dense syntax of section one, section two breathes much easier to me, is far more certain of itself, and is, to put it simply enough, beautiful. Here is one of the final sections (“Parachronism”), in which the Antillean nighthawk is attacked:
The cricetid pneumotropic clinging at that place (at the lung) on the corpse corpses flung on trash heaps the bud breathing in some of them still flicker in some seaming corpse—Venus arising the arms raised above the ocean of on-lookers with the WHOK! in the air shouting cremorne cylindrical tube’s sound a soundless butterfly (the air that the cremorne’s sound parted) frenulum a strong spine on the hind wing of the butterfly projecting beneath the forewing serves holds the 2 wings together in flight dives who’s Venus WHAP! rallies with such strength the Antillean nighthawk hologram arises ‘then’
In this section the girls’ dilemma, articulated in such a complex syntax, is matched perfectly by Smith’s stark drawings. The other images would have worked better, I suspect, if they too had been played for their (complimentary) differences with the text, rather than as technical analog.
Dihedrons articulates much of my own ‘blinded’ shock at much of the violence of the events the novel covers. And it is, however despairing, a wonderful, relentless final book. It is difficult, and I suspect sometimes (but only sometimes) too resigned to accepting the world-for-the-way-it-is. This is perhaps a product of Scalapino’s Buddhism, and reflects a degree of patience with the contemporary moment absent in many others (including myself). But to say so risks too reductive a reading of Scalapino’s project. It is a restless novel, despairing of the fate of the innocent while endlessly critiquing the position and language of those in power, like Sarah Palin and the current Iranian leadership. I cannot imagine anyone finishing the book without feeling not only enraged at the many overriding injustices featured here, but prepared to act against them, however wounded we are by their persistence (as Scalapino seems to be). The novel ends, after all, with one of the girls “ranging among birds wailing with pain rage loose restedness too cuts to pieces.” Nevertheless Scalapino, in every recording I have heard of her reading from the book, treats the text with the utmost calm. She is even “heroic” in her attention, as Fanny Howe puts it, to the future as well as the present, both things she so effectively erases. These things happen everyday, we are reminded, and we must continue to confront them.
Andrew Durbin's work has appeared or is forthcoming in Otoliths, Washington Square, Antennae, and NAP. He lives in New York and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.