The Public World / Syntactically Impermanence

Leslie Scalapino

1999 • 151 pp. • $7.00
ISBN: 9780819563798
Poetry, Literary Nonfiction
(Wesleyan University Press)

Purchase from Small Press Distribution

THE PUBLIC WORLD/SYNTACTICALLY IMPERMANENCE is a brilliant consideration of the strategies of poetry, and the similarities between early Zen thought and some American avant-garde writings that counter the “language of determinateness,” or conventions of perception. The theme of the essays is poetic language which critiques itself, recognizing its own conceptual formations of private and social, the form or syntax of the language being “syntactically impermanence.” Whether writing reflexively on her own poetry or looking closely at the writing of her peers, Leslie Scalapino makes us aware of the split between commentary (discourse and interpretation) and interior experience. The “poetry” in the collection is both commentary and interior experience at once. She argues that poetry is perhaps most deeply political when it is an expression that is not recognized or readily comprehensible as discourse.


Leslie Scalapino (1944 – 2010) is the author of thirty books of poetry, prose inter-genre-fiction, plays, and essays. Granary Book just published a collaborative book by artist Kiki Smith and Leslie Scalapino, titled The Animal is in the World like Water in Water. Scalapino’s It’s go in horizontal/Selected Poems, 1974-2006 was published by University of California Press at Berkeley in 2008. Other books of Scalapino’s poetry include Day Ocean State of Stars’ Night (Green Integer), a collection of eight years; Zither & Autobiography (Wesleyan University Press), The Tango (Granary Press), Orchid Jetsam(Tuumba), Dahlia’s Iris—Secret Autobiography and Fiction (FC2 Publishers); a reprint of the prose work Defoe (Green Integer); and It’s Go In Quiet Illumined Grass Land (The Post-Apollo Press).


Long one of the most influential of the “left coast” language poets, Scalapino (New Time, Forecasts, Apr. 26) adds to her already considerable oeuvre with this, her third book of essays and hybrid poem-plays. While the book is divided into two sections—with eight “essays” in the first and three longer “works” in the second—this distinction is rendered highly permeable by Scalapino’s resolutely non-normative, or non-academic at least, prose style. An intricate weave of cross-references from text to text heightens the interconnectedness of the book, and allows the nomadic—a dedicated—reader to describe a sort of productive rebus throughout the book. The book is also surprisingly engaging, as Scalapino discusses the early foundations of Zen (Nagarjuna’s Seventy Stanzas) and the works of some of her peers, particularly Philip Whalen, Susan Howe and Robert Creeley. In their “demonstration of no-procedure” (“Deer Night” is a “total” rewriting” of The Tempest and King Lear), the essays indirectly suggest a comparison between the temporal indeterminacy of many Zen texts and Gertrude Stein’s notion (from William James) of the “continuous present,” and aim to resist easy cultural absorption. Agrammatical title and all, this is critical writing as restless as it is beautiful, in which poetry is boldly proclaimed as constituting “society’s secret interior.”
—Publishers Weekly (June 28, 1999)