Sentenced To

Kristina Marie Darling

Mar 22, 2018

Co-Written with Lisa Olstein


When considering the resurgence of dense, gratifyingly difficult experimental writing in recent years, the specter of Gertrude Stein (especially Tender Buttons) looms large.  In a book-length study, Conflicting Stories, Elizabeth Ammons describes the poeticized prose of this master-work as being "encoded," referencing what she calls the book's "radical confusion." Yet this description of Stein’s writing as being purposefully difficult, encoded even, fails to capture the misleading familiarity of the work's visual appearance on the printed page.  From the very beginning of the book, Stein offers us pristine, impeccable grammatical constructions, which lead the reader to expect the kind of conventional reasoning that the sentence implies.  Stein certainly presents us with "radical confusion" of language and its underlying logic, but this subversion is couched within what seem, at first glance, like received structures of writing, thinking, and communicating.

The twenty-first century has seen this kind of textual difficulty revisited, its possibilities for disruption expanded and multiplied.  In a recent collection of poems, Post-Moxie, Julia Story offers us gorgeously lyrical prose in pristine boxes, a narrative that evokes its own containment through its appearance on the printed page. Similarly, Chelsea Minnis’s work, by equating the poetic line and the sentence, reimagines the sentence as an open field composition, with no discernable teleology or end point.  Each beginning extends indefinitely, offering us causal relationships that frustrate the inevitable belief that there will be an adeptly reasoned conclusion.

The sentence, even when we fail to realize it, is a visual field, cultivating readerly expectations of order (and disorder).

Even (especially?) when we fail to realize it, the sentence is a visual field, an aural landscape, a synaptic syntax, an actual ordering—or disordering—of mind. “It is quite natural that some hear more pleasantly with the eyes than with the ears,” writes Stein,[i] and of course, to hear with the eyes something must be written. “What I hear is orange,” writes Story, [ii] and although hearing in color might occur in the mind’s ear or the ear’s mind, here we mostly mean to think of sentence’s put down, as we say, on the page.

Every good sentence presents its own code and offers its own decoding. Words arrange, brain aligns. I'm partial to the long slide. The short, as well. The saturated, the sparse, the casual, the ecstatic, the cacophonic, the newly quiet “snowfield of the mind.” [iii] Meaning, thought is a sensed aesthetic: I want to be imprinted, converted as much as convinced. “The green lake is awake,” comes to mind offering instance and as much as description. [iv]

Gratifyingly difficult: a strain that proves productive, a strenuousness that leans pleasurable. I heard recently on the radio that our taste buds like what hurts, as long as it hurts in the right way, and that the right way unfolds over time—we bring ourselves along. Radical confusion: as opposed to confusion of less pleasurably-productively difficult kinds. Is it confusing for something pretty to be hard? Yes, says Tender Buttons, but then again, don’t many readers find it less pretty once they find it difficult, confusing? Is it gratifying for something difficult to appear to be contained? Yes, says Post-Moxie, but look: the real pleasure may be watching those boxes breathe and expand.

It’s radical to be subsumed, taken in hand, insisted upon, which is the action of inhabiting any sentence that subverts an expected unfolding. It’s radical to be released again, to some extent transformed. And it’s perhaps most radical to realize what our expectations were, to have them revealed to us by rendering them unmet. To be radical, must something reveal? Content and context are one kind of door: who, what, where. But we’re talking about another: how. How to be radical in the house of the sentence is a question of how: how the sentence builds a structure to live in, becomes a body to move in, dictates laws to be ruled by or overthrow. “Is it me, or is the sentence, as structure, arrogant?/All snow, in here, this writing, departure,” francine j. harris writes in today’s “poem-a-day.”[v]

Just a few days before, “I just signed your death warrant,” said the heroine/villainess judge, imprecisely, to the monster molester. She hadn't. Rather, she’d added enough years to his sentence that he would now be sure to die in prison. Difficulties (gratifying and not) and confusions (radical and otherwise) abound. Radically, she’d turned her courtroom into a home for people’s sentences about a profoundly confusing and difficult harm. And she was perhaps harmful (to decorum, to her position, to the case or cause), it was argued, in trying to be too radical in her sentences, seeming to wish upon him a sentence of like difficulty: harm similar to what he had sentenced so many to.

Sentences spoken, silences broken: what, where. Sentences imposed, literally (his) and figuratively (so many hers). Subversion couched, familiarity misled, radically revealed. Disruption of syntax: in this case a frustration or finally a culmination of the expectation that there will be adeptly reasoned conclusions? But now I've veered: in content—probably you didn't mean for us to venture here—and in tone—I'm speaking now according to a habit of mind, a sentenced intimacy, developed with someone else: how. Should my sentences be the same or different exchanged with you? “From a distance they look like geometry. From up close, well, you can see what they look like up close.”[vi]

[i] Stein, Gertrude; Everybody’s Autobiography

[ii] Story, Julia; Post-Moxie

[iii] Woolf, Virginia; On Illness

[iv] Ceravalo, Joseph; “The Green Lake Is Awake”

[v] harris, francine j., “Single Lines Looking Forward. or One Mono-stitch Past 45”

[vi] Story, Julia; Post-Moxie