Seismosis

Seismosis
Text: John Keene
Drawings: Christopher Stackhouse

Seismosis is a difficult text.

Difficult because it insists that we attend to the hyphen that sutures word-image, not a gap but a pulling. Written language asserts its visuality while, contrapuntally, image foregrounds its textuality. The figure of the hyphen is apt, for it threatens to cut in half what it sutures: its condition of being is unstitching. If I insist on the metaphoricity and, more generally, the tropic nature of Seismosis (trope and tropism), it is because it is a text that inclines, that leans.

Seismosis is a collaboration between John Keene and Christopher Stackhouse, comprising 52 poems by Keene and 52 images by Stackhouse. It is both a giving and letting go, as Keene is also an artist while Stackhouse is a poet. One is struck by the interplay between hypotaxis and parataxis, where text speaks to image, image to text, where one defers to the other, and where one parallels the other. Stackhouse’s art tugs at the edges of the term art, daring us to imagine possibilities for loops, lines, squiggles. Images struggle to come into being all the while clinging to their conditions of emergence. Similarly, Keene’s elegantly wrought poems strain on the page, their denotative meanings precariously secured and obscured by their sheer beauty.

To call this work edgy is to re-define what that over-used word means. One experiences the anxiety and possibilities of what Edmund Burke terms the sublime, the unmaking of encounter that is, simultaneously, a re-making, a being returned to one’s embodiment.

Stackhouse’s loops, lines, and squiggles track the emergence of meaning-making as it fails to coalesce into image or text, haunting yet never fully inhabiting both. As Keene writes, “in the mark event, you enter your signature” (“Process”). We are invited to recall and participate in the “mark event,” the marking that, as event, provides a canvas for reflection and assemblage: history and story, significance.

This “theory of traces” (“Field”) is also an “erotics of touch” (“Field”). Juxtaposed, text and image overlay and overlap, language’s textures expressed in frenetic, too-mobile images, image’s sediments collected, lovingly, in textual parataxis. One does not encounter collapse, but frottage. And all the ambivalence of frottage’s affect—pleasurable disquiet, irritated sensuality, touching always touching. I find myself longing for and yet resisting image as emergence—the traces, as in “Figure V,” whose strongly linear lines evoke known objects. But glancingly, touching the familiar without becoming it.

Stackhouse’s images render the endless mobility of simile: “like,” never “is.” Simile is, of course, the less theorized and perhaps less respected cousin to metaphor. It is apt in this case. The “as” joins image to text, mediating and suturing, “Counterbalanced, not / metonymic” (“Azimuth”).

In a moment of what can only be termed expository ekphrasis, Keene writes,

Emerging, through shadings . . . he tries
to ferment possibilities and mind them—
balancing surface textures, shadow spaces
distilling what lies there.

Concluding the poem,

Scribbling

being reading and pursuing each approximate tale,
tipped by collective and conceptual
implications. Always an edge towards true being,
mingling all expression, becoming anew. (“After C (4): Event Location”)

What is it to “scribble” being and to understand “scribbling” as “reading”? Enjambment sutures modernity’s promises, especially to minorities: that writing brings one into being. But this writing always contends with “scribbling.” One is reminded here that on reading Phyllis Wheatley’s work, Jefferson could not bring himself to term her a poet. The risk of “scribbling / being” is precisely that the being predicated on such scribbling risks itself—this, of course, is the shared fate of all art made public.

In his Foreword to the text, Ed Roberson writes that Seismosis “could appear to be the notes for an innovative lecture,” only to clarify that it is “the complete text for the course.” When I first read these comments, I was reluctant to agree. Now, I’m more swayed.

I’m swayed, in part, because of how conscious of itself Seismosis is. Everything I want to write about it is anticipated in stunning word and image, word-image. Still, let me draw attention to two terms that linger: echo and fold. Both are structural elements and aesthetic strategies.

An echo is, of course, a distorted re-hearing, a throwing back of sound and language, a becoming strange to oneself. On a textual level, poems re-turn, re-formulated. For instance, the final poem is titled “Process,” like the first, and similarly consists of one line: “In the mark, we choose and lose signature,” echoing the first section of the first “Process,” but re-hearing, re-turning. “Analysis I” re-turns as “Analysis II,” though assuming a different arrangement on the page. And, most strikingly, “Prisms” features a vertical line separating two portions of text, as though in columns. As though because the mechanisms of reading the poem, whether one reads across the column, acknowledging yet ignoring the line, or down one column and then down the next, the poem emerges multiply.

Echo is also a way to register the visual effect of Stackhouse’s art, which sounds in its visuality, the screeching halt, the arrested smile, the yearning to break from voice to image and to have both, all re-sound in text. Now, this is difficult to do, and even more difficult to describe. One does not simply see these images—one feels them in their, paradoxically, auditory muteness.

If echo provides one conceptual way to map this collection’s concerns, fold, as in invagination, provides another. And here I must revise my earlier assessment. While the hyphen sutures this collection, the fold describes its overall method. Image folds into image, text into text, image into text, text into image. One moves from one to the other feeling haunted: at times, it is only the page numbers that keep track of progress. One gets lost. One becomes unsettled.

It might seem too obvious to conclude on a note about the title, but Seismosis grants one, or at least me, the courage to complicate the obvious, and the permission to embrace the shame of being obvious.

I can only assume that Seismosis derives, in some way, or has some relation to seismic, to moving and re-arranging, to unsettling and being unsettled. As Keene puts it, “Yearning to reorder the ontic things” (“Ontic”), seeing “In these fragments futured arrivals” (“Ontic”). Seismosis is intentional, with all the weight accorded that term in phenomenology: “deferral becomes an act of witnessing” (“Fugues”).

To write of Seismosis‘s ethical value seems far-fetched, yet I am struck, repeatedly, by the collection’s attention to sideways glances, what one sees at the corner of one’s eye, at the edge of memory, hanging precariously over history’s edge. These edgings/etchings are re-folded into the quotidian, re-integrated within a Whitmanian ethic that insists on the suture and the hyphen as our daily possibilities and challenges: “As you contain them you continue” (“Folds”).