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What Is a Ghost : Ellipses In Recent Work From Cole Swensen, par Christophe Lamiot

29 avril 2012

Starting from a close reading of Swensen’s 2004 Goest, my paper aims at showing how in the poet’s most recent work—including 1997 Noon, 2000 Oh, 2001 Such Rich Hour, 2005 The Book of a Hundred Hands, 2007 The Glass Age, 2008 Ours, and 2010 Greensward [1]— ellipses work toward bringing out her ideas on the ontogenic origins of language. My aim is to show that 1) Swensen suggests an archaeology of language from its ontogenic perspective, 2) concentrates, within this archaeology, on a parting of ways between words on the one hand, and the real on the other, 3) calls her readers’ attention to blanks and other empty spaces as highly significant in reference to learning processes, and 4) in so doing, defines poetry as both witnessing and learning related.

My critical references are Freud, Ferenczy, Stein, Lacan, Dolto, and Didier-Weill, among others, as regards psychoanalysis and the question of the origins of language from an ontogenic perspective.

This paper follows a seminar that I directed 2010-2011 for the Paris Collège International de Philosophie at Jussieu, entitled “archéologie de la figure de style.”

What does literature in general and poetry in particular bring us in terms of knowledge ? Is there any point to it, or are there several, and what is the point or points ? Beyond the pleasure that both literature and poetry can give, what do they generate that is important for us ? It is my contention that Cole Swensen, in her work over the last ten years, raises such questions, i.e. is positioned within the bounds of such contemporary questions. A professor of creative writing in an important university in the United States, Swensen has been regularly published over the past ten years so that her style and preoccupations have now established themselves as highly recognizable within the ever-moving, ever-expanding domain of poetry in English emerging from the USA. Her favourite themes or areas of interest are composed of medieval times, France, landscape architecture and public gardens, hands, lights and light, and how all of them shape our gaze. Indeed, Swensen typically collects a lot of pre-existing materials and often connects her poetry to already existing literature—meaning critical literature—on a given topic. A careful and learned or highly cultivated preparation goes into the making of her texts. She likes to dialogue with academic references and certainly sees her activity as similar to other arts and other artistic practices. Because she has the knack of bringing together in the same text the most ancient and the most recent, in terms of science, at least as exemplified in words, her work lends itself to an archaeological perspective. By this, I mean a questioning of what involves language itself, be it now or earlier ; technically or humanly ; what goes into the making of a word, for instance ; how to account for the advent of language, and the learning of language by a particular person ; what the relationship is between language and the world at large—language being also a part of the world, before any theory or any ideology might be implemented and developed ; what the medieval period, and its arts in particular, have to teach us.

I choose to focus here on an evocation and study of her 2004 Goest. Indeed, via the homophony between “goest” g o e s t and “ghost” g h o s t, the very title of the book already suggests the dynamics of language on the one hand, and on the other hand, the added value or ghost value of language, meaning what it has to convey as far as our past is concerned, or as a ghost comes back to remind us of something that you and I tend to so easily overlook and forget. In other words, I want to comment on Goest as an archaeology of language, or as a special way into an archaeology of language. My main point is not to focus on a theme or themes that I previously mentioned as dear to Swensen, but rather describe Swensen’s use of blanks and spaces and whiteness and other ellipses as described for example in Chapter VI of Henri Suhamy’s Les Figures de style ; [2] to consider them as the main topic of the book and as Swensen’s precise contribution to an archaeology of language. My point here is to suggest in the presence of blanks or whites, - the traditional vestment of ghosts in fact - an important memory of mankind and one way in which poetry enables us to partake in some decisive knowledge.

Knowledge is something that can be forgotten, in that one does not always have it to hand. It may be defined indeed as what is ever-recurring—as a ghost, it comes back, making its return one way or another, consciously or unconsciously. It keeps haunting us. Swensen’s Goest is basically structured like a research paper, neatly constructed the better to make its point or points. The obviously rhetorical aspect of her volume sets it apart from miscellanies and collections —an assembling of texts that do not offer their readers a previously defined, given direction, but only a direction that one has to discover from the start while reading the texts so as to be able to abstract something from them all after. In her systematic and sustained attention to structure and rhetoric and focus combined, Swensen diverges from most of her contemporaries. As far as her predecessors go, if she’s compared to poets from Gertrude Stein, or even Emily Dickinson, onward, i.e. from the advent of modernity in poetry in the USA, I see, above all other Objectivists, only Lorine Niedecker as having had such a passion for the transmission or imparting of knowledge. Whereas Niedecker’s answer to the question “what does poetry convey as knowledge ?” might be “an intimacy of relationships developed through language between a speaker and his or her world so that a better life might be led by the aforementioned speaker”—I’ve her For Paul and Other Poems [3] in mind, especially— Swensen’s answer to the same question is certainly to be found in the specific attention that poetry accords to the world at large, and more especially the poet’s use of language.

I wasn’t surprised by the title of Swensen’s 2004 volume : some time before it was published, I had met her at the Rostand café in Paris, and she had asked me a series of questions concerning ghosts, carefully noting down whatever apt answers I had given to questions she had of course put to others before me.
There are two textual markers that best work toward ascertaining Swensen’s interest in knowledge and the imparting of knowledge : her spare usage of the “I” versus other personal markers and her very academic tripartite division of the volume. In my first part I will examine and comment on such markers so as to draw the reader’s attention to spaces and blanks and whites in general. Before more broadly establishing Swensen’s contribution to knowledge in poetry viewed as archaeology in a third part, I will have narrowed my focus and comments onto more specific texts, in a second part. A fourth part will then function as both a conclusion and an opening onto other volumes, including more recent ones by Swensen.

The table of contents of Goest is arranged so as to strongly suggest a study of what white means. In other words, Goest might present in the form of poetry an equivalent to other studies made on colours and what they represent, for instance. There are three subdivisions, each headed by a subtitle to Goest : the first is « Of White », and could function as a brief recapitulation of what is generally known of the topic, or as an introduction to the rest of the volume ; the second is “A History of the Incandescent” and would constitute the core of Swensen’s proposition, as its length suggests, before a third part brings us to some kind of conclusion, with the title “On White” coming back to the first white mentioned.

Thus the physical arrangement on the page itself is meaningful. Besides, on turning the first pages of the first part, one notices another phenomenon : while they are composed of several parts, the texts themselves do not propose such parts, each separated by an empty space or blank, but let them come and glue themselves to the top margin as if attracted there by some force—just like so many balloons in a room that had been released to go and stick themselves onto the ceiling. Pages 5-9, five short parts or texts already constituted—though without headings in bold type, set aside from the rest of the words by type and position—follow a first one under its due title, p. 4, “Others.” “Others” in bold refers to “several people” in the second line same page, in which case the following five pages may be considered as without titles ; or else “Others” refers to the sequence of texts from 4 to 9. In any case, the extent to which the printed part of the text is compressed up towards the top of the page is remarkable. If I say « the printed part of the text », I mean to suggest that the arrangement on the page of the very first part of Goest prompts the reader to see the space below the print as an integral part of the text ; or to consider blanks as significant as print. Swensen makes us hesitate between reading five pages in a row as a sequence of separate pieces or taking them as parts of a whole : such an induced hesitation anyway calls our attention to the white that covers most of the pages. Focusing on blanks in this way, bringing them to the fore, is taken up again just a few pages later, and extends over three pages, this time similarly introduced by “The Future of Sculpture.

In part 2, “The Invention of Streetlights” pp.23-29 and “The History of Artificial Ice” pp.31-32, “The Invention of the Mirror” pp.34-37, “The Lives of Saltpeter” pp.46-47 and the next “The Invention of Etched, Engraved & Incised Glass” pp.48-49 make this induced hesitation a regular feature in the volume—which is confirmed in the third and last part by “The Future of White”, going from 56 to 58 ; not to mention the conniving “Five Landscapes” text pp.10-14 in the first part, with its double in the last part pp.59-63, under the exact same heading—“Five Landscapes”—and with each one of the landscapes being numbered in bold as well. Given their setting on the page, these landscapes point to the blanks on the page, as well as to what’s printed above, as some kind of a title perhaps to whatever “landscape” the blank or seemingly empty space below constitutes. So a majority of texts in Goest propose whites or blanks or empty parts of pages or whiteness of paper as the main topic.

A rapid study of personal markers confirms the didactic aspect of Swensen’s take on white. The first person singular “I” first disappears in the first part, where it is replaced by an indefinite “you,” definitely “on” if translated into French. It is then replaced by a “we” p.16 to better introduce either a discourse on others’ knowledge, or a general discourse. In the second part, “A History of the Incandescent,” “I” does crop up from time to time, here and there, before really coming to the fore in the last part with 6 occurrences in only 9 pages. Conclusions are necessarily more personal.

If Goest g o e s t reminds readers of Ghosts g h o s t s, scientists also are interested in supernatural or paranormal phenomena. Not only do they point to superstitions and creeds, if studied according to an ethnographic model, but they can also be perceived from the perspective of what might be called the beyond’s stepping into or actual presence in the quotidian, especially in the form of visions or hallucinations. Going beyond the dichotomy between good and evil, Sigmund Freud and other psychoanalysts take ghosts and the ghostly with the utmost seriousness and try to figure out how they function, as part of the cure. While Swensen does not set her work within the framework of psychoanalysis, she indicates that poetry, or her poetry to be more precise, deals with the same set of phenomena, is interested in the same topic, has something to say about it, that other sciences miss. Where a Jerome Rothenberg, for instance, focuses on primitive rites and institutions in his work, hers presents phenomena from our civilization and even at times our contemporary period, to offer her readers poetry in the shape of a research-oriented study.

From its very title to its inner architecture to its contents in terms of semantics and discourse or discursivity, Goest proposes the itinerary taken by a writer from the time of her questioning to the formulation of her intuition to the putting together of a machinery of words designed to present what a work of research and reflexion finally suggests in terms of knowledge. Here, Goest doubly indicates as past what comes back and constitutes whites, blanks, and what is generally referred to as ellipses in speech. On the one hand, “goest” is an archaic form of “go” in the second person singular—as in “thou goest.” On the other hand, the homonymy with “ghost” makes the white or blanks or ellipses a recurring and haunting feature of humankind or mankind, something draping what is seen —or itself a part of what is seen and more generally perceived ?

I now want to present two texts from the Goest volume to give a better feeling of what Swensen’s poetry indicates : a proper delving into what constitutes language, not so much from a phylogenic perspective, as from an ontogenic one. In fact, it could be said that Goest offers the ghost of research per se : what haunts all research endeavors, what orientates them whatever their shape or apparent directions or objects or thematic choices.

For her opening move, Swensen collects a number of situations that she considers significant to her purpose. Each one is strangely familiar or familiarly strange—this is how they all may be characterized at first. There is a girl on whom it never rains about which I’ll comment further, quoting the poem in full later on ; a house in which guests laugh in the dark ; an answering machine on which is left every night a silent message of at least thirty seconds ; identical twins who communicate through prime numbers and medieval paintings in which characters have supernumerary fingers ; a man composing a symphony from the way birds are perched on the electric wires ; a stranger who firmly puts his hand on the small of your back in the French métro ; the first photograph by Niepce ; passers-by seen from behind a frost-covered pane ; a woman at the opera, then talking in her sleep ; a man who sings in his sleep that four out of five living creatures are insects ; landscapes all lending themselves to various interpretations—or is it five interpretations of the same thing, itself seized between several interpretive options ? There are also works by Cy Twombly, cities under the sun, a man glancing at a shop window and seeing all his past life there, and a boy in a street who counts the cobbles. So Swensen places a series of slightly disturbing notations under her reader’s eyes. Each of these situations or scenes or scenarios corresponds to a perception that eventually fails to accomplish its identifying task. So an “object” is both presented and not presented. It is an object and it is not. Goest starts with the following :

The Girl Who Never Rained

Oddly enough, there was always a city block of clear weather on every side of her, a space just large enough that the casual passerby simply thought, “What an odd spot of calm,” and often even people who knew her well never quite put it together, as, after all, it’s not that unusual to have a break in a storm, though they’d develop, after a while, an odd inclination to be with her without really thinking out why. Other than that, her life was neither better nor worse than most, except, of course, for the crowds.

What we have here is not transparent. From the moment readers open Swensen’s volume, the confidence that they might have had in language is shaken. More precisely, the very relationship between title on the one hand and text underneath on the other is seriously compromised. Readers thus hesitate between two possibilities : either the text seems to draw a character on whom it never rains, or else the value assigned to such a text is contained in the title which makes the girl “never rain,” transitively, as if it were usual to have people, or a particular person rain. Strange familiarity or familiar strangeness—but what does it concern ? Is it the world or a part thereof described here ? Or is it language itself, rather, i.e. the very tool of description ?

Text and title do not correspond exactly. But they do correspond enough so that there arises a desire to square one with the other. Text and title together lead either to consider the “girl who never rained” as meaning something slightly different from what it apparently says, what is first proposed word for word, or to shift the meaning of the paragraph below it toward something like “a girl near whom it was always nice to be,” or “a girl always in a terrific mood” or even “a girl whose terrific mood was so terrific that it spread around her and soon affected her neighbours and those walking next to her.” In one case, the strangeness of a girl never raining is reduced ; in the other, the oddity of such a micro-climate around her. In any case, this foregrounding of an imperfect correspondence between title and titled text shifts Swensen’s focus tremendously. With “The Girl Who Never Rained,” she implicitly states that language itself, far from being transparent in its use or usage, needs consideration and must draw attention to itself first. Language has a story to tell. Readers discover abruptly the latitude that words allow for use and interpretation. What seemed quite clear is blurred.

Never to fall in particles or drops : we are all girls who never rained, meaning that we aspire to the “girl who never rained”’s mysterious status that prevents breakage and liquifying and fall, and on top of that, brings people together—even without knowing the reason for it. We are thus drawn to “the girl who never rained,” although what is really meant thereby remains a mystery. She is our ghost. She haunts us, bringing a somewhat creepy feeling with her appearances. Swensen’s humor at the end of the text underlines this sense of creepiness or otherworldliness within the world we all know.

So a first scenario or early scene is here developed that haunts even didactic discourse or discourse that aims for maximum clarity. Swensen’s research poetry or study poetry of a didactic turn immediately defines the area on which poetry will cast its particular lights, or points to poetry’s powers of enlightenment, providing special knowledge of and on language.

What Goest first tells its readers concerns our reading : percepts and feelings are to be associated with an exterior as well as an interior world ; to tell of meetings and exchanges. Elements crop up to represent such associations or relationships—although they may not be entirely apt ; nor may they exactly do the trick. Instituted elements however do lend themselves to the easy interpretation that they do a beautiful job which couldn’t be bettered. Instituted elements are words, as we ordinarily conceive of them. In general terms, it cannot be denied that the phrase “it rains” or “it’s raining” has a greater likelihood of striking a learner’s ear than any other use of rain or raining. “The girl who never rained” might be the way in which a young learner would evoke a person he or she had noticed as not being at all concerned with or bothered by rain—as meaning someone that did not mind at all being in a down-pour. To such a person, this young boy or girl—not yet shaped or inhibited by the learning of “proper” ways to speak—would assign a power that could be termed magical, a power to not rain ; or to repel rain. Others would not have such a power : during walks with them, the boy or girl would have noticed that heavy rain was considered a nuisance and prompted a quick reaction against it. In fact, what’s now coming to the fore is that the strangeness of the text can be reduced if its title is imagined in a young person’s mouth, and the rest in the words from the same person, only considered further along in his or her life. So the text as a whole, title included, would work as a way in which a given person deals with words in his or her life : first, there would be a free use of them. Such usages would correspond to short and creative utterances—here, the title ; later on, words would have to be arranged in series, constituting sentences and paragraphs ; they would have an explicative function. In this first text, poetry thus keeps a memory of a relationship with language implemented in any person’s infancy. Ghosts come back—witnesses of a person’s singular experience of language at an early age or in the pre-verbal period of life. The poem opens onto an antecedent, or a predecessor, something that has preceded it.

Confronted with “The Girl Who Never Rained” on its page in Goest, readers cannot fail to notice how “a city block of clear weather on every side of her”, used to describe the girl who never rained in the first sentence of the text, also refers to the whiteness on all sides of the printed text, compressed as it is towards the top of the page. There is calm, everything around is quiet— especially below. The girl who never rained may be rained on, after all. I, to start with, might take a pen and inscribe something in one of the margins or several (as I did in my copy of the volume, as a matter of fact). White, whiteness of paper would be the girl who never rained, to be opposed to the drops of inky words, still transperced by white or standing out because of white. The desire to come to the girl who never rained and stay close to her, or even to have her status can now be understood as a will to return to childhood—a time during which empty spaces prevail, soon to be invested by language ; a period mostly favourable to creativity ; now a place in memory brought back by poetry and glimpsed for an instant. Ellipses in Swensen’s poems may now be considered as recurrences of the girl who never rained, a ghost representing for every speaker his or her self in infancy, or more explicitly in linguistic infancy. With a slight disruption or non-coincidence between title and text-core, Swensen points to the fact that world and words do not fit neatly, but always lend themselves to rearrangements. As Goest suggests, poetry would be a witness par excellence of such movements or possible movements. It would not be more fanciful or more lax or more negligent than scientific discourse. On the contrary, its demands would prove greater, as they would apply to the very medium in which all research is finally expressed : language. An infant or youngster does not privilege content communication in his or her speech—but rather joy of communication,. From title to text-core in “The Girl Who Never Rained,” there is a concern for referents and the world around that comes to the fore—in their relationship to words. Perhaps the girl who never rained does not make sense immediately ; it does not matter very much. In the text below, though, there is clearly an attempt at some explanation of what was first put forth.

Psychoanalysis works along similar lines, from the attention it gives discourse that has apparently no meaning or presents itself as particularly difficult to understand. It tries to bring to light a coherence within such discourse or other linguistic or human manifestations, however contorted. Swensen lends poetry a scientific attitude in just this way. The Surrealists in France did something similar, too, starting with the first ten or so years of the XXth century, and the first publications in French of Freud’s works at the same time.

From Ferdinand de Saussure on, linguistics specialists have very seldom questioned the arbitrariness said to characterize the association between signifier and signified—and incursions into the realm of the relationship between referents and signs have not met a better fate. However, the proposed arbitrariness has never meant that associations and relationships so established could not be historicised, or changed or slightly altered, for that matter. Swensen’s “The Girl Who Never Rained” suggests indeed an Adam-like power wielded by poets. They can relate to feelings associated to experiences from a pre-verbal time, defined as the first six years of life, roughly speaking. They convey to us what very early animates speakers and constitutes their first world. Other pieces in the volume also stress what escapes the apparent reaches of reason—in “Others” especially, pp.4-9. “The Girl Who Never Rained” harks back to an ontological past, not-so-distant, in which words have not started dividing the real, and a feeling of wholeness still prevails. It comes to Swensen’s work in the shape of white, blanks and ellipses, or the manifestation of the substratum of the page itself, still homogenous and perfectly unified. In order to assess how far Swensen follows the line of this archaeology of language into ontogeny, or white, let’s now turn to the second and main part of the volume under question and examine what shapes “A History of the Incandescent.”

“Lacrymea Vitreae,” “The Invention of the Night-watch,” “The Invention of Streetlights,” “The First Lightbulb,” “The History of Artificial Ice,” “The Invention of the Hydrometer,” “The Invention of the Mirror,” “The Invention of the Weathervane,” “The Invention of Automata,” “What the Ventriloquists Said,” “The Origin of Ombres Chinoises,” “The Game of Balls and Cups,” “The Discovery of Bologna Stone,” “Things to Do with Naphta,” “Of Manganese and Other Things,” “The Lives of Saltpeter,” “The Invention of Etched, Engraved & Incised Glass,” “The Exploration of Fluor-Spar,” “The Invention of the Pencil,” and “The Development of Natural Gas” : most texts in Goest’s second and main part have to do with firsts and origins. Faithful to her interest in civilization, Western civilization and Europe especially, from the Middle Ages onward, Swensen collects various episodes of ghostly presence within the history of arts and technologies. Glass tears, night watchers, street lights, light bulbs, artificial ice, hydrometers, mirrors, weathervanes, automata, ventriloquists’ speeches, magic lanterns, the continuity of games over vast expanses of time, phosphorescence, properties of various stones and substances, writings on glass, pencils and natural gas witness the on-going conversation of man with nature, or more precisely of the obviously animate with the apparently inanimate : men are drawn by whatever life might be acknowledged within the inanimate. In fact, several inventions would be thus explained by a hugely shared, subterraneous will to better come to understand what ghosts are— here equated to whiteness, or to the whiteness of incandescence.

The first conclusion to be drawn from such a perspective is that incandescence does not correspond to a control over things that reason would provide. To the point of highest light corresponds a high degree of darkness. And this is the second conclusion, coextensive with the first one : over and over again, as if haunted or a ghost himself—which recalls the Deleuzian quote at the beginning of the volume and in epigraph, “Life is not a personal thing”—man tries to reproduce the conditions of an all-inclusive brightness, just to discover that it engenders more darkness ; that the one calls for the other ; that light and dark go together. “The Invention of the Night-watch” can be read as an allegory of man’s obsession with white or ghosts.

The Invention of the Night-watch

All dark walks it’s in all the books—Psalms, Solomon,

the ones with all the pictures
crossed out. A legion of staves, and etched onto the leaves : what here
I have witnessed

a blind world kinder
beneath a torch
held in a sheaf
on which said eye and yes
On which said light is fixed,
while in the molten light they stood

on corners all night long as the bell-bearers stalked abroad and what you thought was a tolling of the hours you were counting was in fact an encoded reporting of events : theft, murder, fire, wolf, circle one
is worthy of attention, is

and then we were eaten, 1385. There’s a light that lists toward each en
route to heaven and we follow the
folding screens. Between seven and
sixteen bodies a night were collected
off the streets of Paris from the
thirteenth through the seventeenth
centuries and several more from the
Who counted in his sleep
counted his sleep ;
who took a walk after dark, I have a friend
in the world.

“The Invention of the Night-watch” interests me here above all for the different types of ellipses that it provides.

Right at the beginning, the space that separates “All dark walks” from the rest of the line places this rest and the printed part of the next line in the position of an interpolated clause or parenthesis.

Remarkably enough, what follows in the third line may be related directly to “All dark walks” or equally to such parenthesis—the main discursive flow and its digressive other finally meeting and merging into oneness. So the space between “All dark walks” and the rest of the line has at least two functions : first, it emphasizes the first three words of the text, suspending them at the beginning of the poem, as it were ; speech immediately fails to follow such a pronouncement ; in fact, it resumes as if from another spot, another position ; second, it also marks how pregnant with discourse it is, just as if whiteness did not mean absence of speech but excess of it, not vacancy but plenitude.

There is a repetition of the above-mentioned first effect of whiteness, right after “I have witnessed.” Readers are prompted to either to consider the witness’s emotion as preventing her from completing her sentence right there, on the spot, or else what she witnesses is too difficult to phrase right away—or ever. The shortness of the lines and the absence of punctuation combine to suggest words and series of words as somewhat isolated, as if caught quickly in a glimpse, under the flickering of a light : blanks and spaces around them make them look thinner, taller, more vertical than they really are ; as if dependent on the blanks surrounding them.

Next I’ll skip several other kinds of ellipses to resume with the one defined by the fifteenth line of the poem, “is worthy of attention, is.” By now it has become clear how the elliptical may be viewed as the printed text itself, as well as the whiteness against which such printed text comes to the fore. Such is Swensen’s use of ellipses and blanks and whiteness in her poems, that this interchanging may take place. Indeed, ellipses do contribute to having readers concentrate on particular words or a word even, in this case “is”—it might have been overlooked in “is worthy of attention” to the benefit of “worthy of attention,” but it now stands alone and draws all the attention to itself.
And such foregrounding of a single word—and here not just any single word—immediately appends mystery, shades, shadows, and darkness to it. Humour in the next line brings an anticlimax to the incandescence that previously marked the text.

From the point of view of a study of blanks and ellipses in “The Invention of the Night-watch,” the near square of text to the right of the page right below “is worthy of attention, is” necessarily reminds us of “The Girl Who Never Rained.” Since p.3, this is the first occurrence of such an arrangement or shape—recurring five or six times, later in the second part of Goest ; a staple use of type and page by Swensen. So what if “The Invention of the Night-watch” did not point directly to its most obvious referent ? What if the text below its title had to be reorganized to better match what it seemingly follows, as in the case of “The Girl Who Never Rained ?” Astonishingly then, there is another interpretation for the entire text that crosses one’s mind : night-watches also refer to the alertness which seizes parents on the birth of their progeny, not to mention the sleepless nights that they may have to spend from then on. Here infancy comes back with a vengeance. “All dark walks” designates a peak in imaginative powers. The invention of the night-watch in the city of Paris, France, can very well hark back to night-watches over a new-born, “a blind world kinder/beneath a torch/held in a sheaf/on which said eye and yes.” The last four lines of the poem take on a particular meaning, then. “Who counted in his sleep” may refer to both watcher and watched—provided “sleep” is understood as broadly meaning the time usually devoted to sleep. There is a beautiful echo of this line in the next, pared down to its essentials and giving the feeling of departing footsteps at the same time the main meaning is sustained : the new born baby who counted in his or her watcher’s sleep, so that this watcher got up and looked over the infant, is also the one counting the watcher’s sleep or making it more broken than usual ; from one line to the next, the inessentials disappear and a sense of pure rhythm, or sleepiness even, thus occurs.

“The Invention of the Night-watch” ends with yet another kind of an ellipsis : as the last two lines mimic the preceding ones in their very structure, an equivalence is suggested between “Who counted in his sleep/counted his sleep ;” and “who took a walk after dark, I have a friend/in the world.

Ellipses, usually defined as breaks in regular discourse, are notably conceived from the point of view of the printed part of the text, not from its blanks or from the whiteness of the page. What Swensen suggests with her Goest volume and the importance that it gives to white, continuity and mystery are a reversal of this tradition : from occupying readers at a loss for words and words’ serial or discursive value, they become the locus of a resurgence for whiteness and wholeness and a preverbal condition that coexists with any learning of instituted language. In other words, Swensen’s ellipses do not prompt readers to fill in the blanks, as much as they are so dominant and frequent and occupy such a place that they call for a simple appreciation of the substratum of the text, i.e. the whiteness of paper or paper’s sheer presence, that may also be called the world or matter, or even more importantly, the relationship that is established between ink and paper, or persons and the world, via speech and language or linguistic signs.

Usually evoked as clad in white, ghosts are at the very least a manifestation of such whiteness—in other words, reminiscences of a condition that is to be associated with infancy and the first discovery of instituted words.

The Invention of Streetlights

noctes illustratas
(the night has houses)
and the shadow of the fabulous
broken into handfuls—these
can be placed at regular intervals,
walking down streets at times eclipsed by trees.

The Invention of the Pencil

a mark upon parchment increases the window
or may even be
the window behind which a swaying branch appears human.

Ambrosinus with his lapis plumbarius who traveled throughout Europe
tracing behind him a thin dark line.
What will not come back.
Crucible and pit.
When burned
leaves nothing but a little iron and a silicate earth.

They tried others : nigrica fabrilis, which breaks on touch ;
matita nera, also known as black chalk :
to make a body of every mark,

they said, slightly shaking their heads as they sewed in the sun,
to replace the silent flight of a stylus
fade. Even Vasari

envied the feathered edge, the infinite greys. We aim a bit of graphite
at vellum and it stains. Beyond every window is a line where the world starts.


[1Cole Swensen, Noon. Los Angeles : Green Integer, 2005.

, Oh. Berkeley, CA : Apogee Press, 2000.

, Such Rich Hour. Iowa City : U. of Iowa P., 2001.

, Goest. Farmington, ME : Alice James Books, 2004.

, The Book of a Hundred Hands. Iowa City : U. of Iowa P., 2005.

, The Glass Age. Farmington, ME : Alice James Books, 2007.

, Ours. Berkeley, CA : U. of California P., 2008.

, Greensward. Brooklyn, NY : Ugly Duckling P., 2010.

[2Henri Suhamy, Les Figures de style. Paris : Presses Universitaires de France, 1981.

[3Lorine Niedecker, Collected Works. Berkeley, CA : U. of California P., 2002, pp.137-177.

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