This week in the PEN Poetry Series, PEN America features an essay by Renee Gladman, whose next book, Calamities, is forthcoming from Wave Books in 2015. 


                               Number Six of the Eleven Calamities 

Prose and I had settled into a relationship where we no longer looked interiorly at each other: I didn’t look into it and it didn’t look into me, and this wasn’t because we didn’t need each other anymore or didn’t like each other, on the contrary, we continued our conversations religiously. But, we no longer asked each other what we were. When we met, it was to gaze out at the lines of the world, and though we had been doing this for most of the length of our acquaintance, it was only recently that we understood lines as autonomous and life changing. We found that the more we studied them, the more of them there were, and not just lines that people had drawn on paper or lines that organized a crowd of people or lines that made letters or shapes on buildings—human lines—but also lines that were already in the earth. I picked up a rock and it was covered in lines, and I showed these lines to prose. We saw that the lines we observed were intersected by further lines, and this was overwhelming. For a long time, we didn’t talk about it. Not directly, in any case. We turned the lines into a story, into a setting for our own mutual gazing. I stared at prose through lines and it stared at me. I occupied the space between the lines, looking at myself: what did it mean to walk, what was the texture of encounter? Did encounter emerge from my own walking or did it evolve from the surrounding space? I called my asking these questions “prose,” and went on this way for many years, watching the question shift from that of walking to that of occupation to, finally, structure. These were the terms of my life with prose. “How do you do it?” We would ask each other on either side of existing, not quite touching. “Where are you going?” I went through many books—books that I was writing, books that I was reading, calling this name “prose” so that I could think about life. Someone would ask me how I was and I would promptly answer “prose.” You’d look down at the inscription I’d written and somehow it would only say “prose.” Prose existed before my thinking. It was a threshold. Prose was also the verb in my life, though I don’t think it would ever say this about me. It put the whole scene in motion. I kept “prose” away from war, I’m now remembering. It wouldn’t get activist. I only brushed it past sex. Prose was an abstraction of experience, which itself was a catalog of things that one went out and did. Experience had a beginning, middle, and end depending on where you drew the lines, and that created confusion in language. I needed prose to talk about language, how it divided me in time, and prose thought through me it could make a shape through sentences. Sometimes it looked like shape was the same as time, but more often not. They were different categories. Shape was matter and time was energy, I sometimes thought through prose. Experience was energy and language was shape, I sometimes thought. Prose stood on the other side of me, sometimes agreeing, sometimes pulling what I’d just said apart. Prose thought that experience existed inside itself and I thought experience existed in me. Instead of arguing we tried to swallow each other. I wore prose on my clothes and on my bags and it wore me. Prose had my face all over its name, so that wherever I went I was saying “prose, prose” to whoever would listen. People paid me to say “prose,” and I didn’t know if I was saying prose because they were paying me or if they were paying me because I said prose and said it lovingly. I never talked about its death or deterioration. I proselytized. I tried to show that the world was full of it. And prose and I agreed that this was the best way to define our existing, this was the way through doors: as long as we went this way space kept reproducing itself: cities grew out of our passage, one city. So, this was our manner of being for a long time until one of us shut our eyes. We were done. Some final thing had been laid and we were done looking at each other in this way. We were perhaps now the same body. In any case, we stopped looking at each other and started looking at the lines of the world. We started with lines we’d found in novels, because there had been so many times of reading where I wanted to follow just one line to the ends of the earth, one thought, one narrative fragment that was alive in the text but also pointed elsewhere, something beyond the story, beyond the confines of the book, and I’d felt that a book could be full of many such lines, none of which pointed to the same place. Prose liked these lines because they lay within it, and that was interesting to encompass something whose very nature extended beyond you, but also seemed to begin in you and return to you after a long time away. Prose couldn’t see some parts of itself: it couldn’t see where it grew slender like a poem or where it opened vastly like a country. It could write the story of a country, but it couldn’t stop and see the expanse of its own form. When we were looking at lines, Prose and I could finally see the things we had never seen, and this changed our relationship to each other and to ourselves. We no longer looked at each other. We stood together and looked out at the world; we looked specifically for one thing and followed it into strange territory. We’d find a line in a novel and follow it and follow it until it took us out of the novel and landed us here on concrete. It took us out of the novel and showed us buildings, but didn’t tell us a story about them. The line was neither descriptive nor instructive. It wanted to travel, to go from language to architecture and it wanted company in doing this. The line moved from the novel to the city and straight up to a building and over it, like a 3-d drawing: it went up and across then back then down, and once it was done it gave a shape that was both a building and a word, but not just a word, a line like a sentence. And though the sentence itself may not have said anything about the building or the city in which the building sat or the country that possessed the city, it pointed to something formally that seemed to sit somewhere between the novel and the city. You wanted to call it prose architecture, but prose didn’t want anything to do with it. It was beyond prose, prose said.


Once a week, the PEN Poetry Series publishes work by emerging and established writers from coast to coast. Subscribe to the PEN Poetry Series mailing list and have poems delivered to your e-mail as soon as they are published (no spam, no news, just poems).