The Words

After Carl Sandburg’s Rootabaga Stories and Jean-Paul Sartre

Carla Harryman

1999 • 106 pp. • $12.00
ISBN: 9781882022397

Purchase from Small Press Distribution

In this challenge to the separation of literary genres, Carla Harryman takes as her points of departure two entirely disparate texts. Exploding Jean-Paul Sartre’s ideal of imagined autonomy, in his autobiography The Words, and inspired by the grotesque play of Sandburg’s Rootabaga Stories, Harryman begins with her own account of an impossible and contemporary childhood. In a world of recollected futurity, nihilists, chairs, amazons, ghosts, and spool babies, “We, the stranded” concoct their illusions of spontaneous creativity.

The Words is not one novel, but many. Its economics are libidinal, luxuriant, and layered: part roman fleuve, in which the first generation born in the ‘artificial jungles’ of the Cold War comes of age ‘on the border that separates the absurd from the socially constructed reality,’ part roman a clef, in which every word will instantly recognize itself and every fly allusion find its author in eternity, and part philosophical romance in the mode of the later Wittgenstein, who proposed that ‘the double cross and the duck-rabbit might be among the spots [on] a wall covered with spots.’ And, because ‘shadows dream in their niches,’ this is finally a utopian novel, everywhere transforming ‘defeat into rapture.’ In (and with) The Words, Carla Harryman has written a postmodern classic. It’s the book to take along to that proverbially deserted island.”
—Ted Pearson

“At last, children’s literature has been liberated, liberated into fiction! Carla Harryman’s Words is a fiction in which the mischief is perpetually unnaming names in an ongoing discursive cross-wind beneficial to hybridizing texts. Bold and subversive.”
—Marjorie Welish

Winesburg, Ohio through a convex eye. Dismissing romanticization and exposé, Harryman opts for the multidimensional properties…”
—Sarah Schulman

“In The Words, Harryman playfully examines the family, the suburbs, daily life, the position of woman, while boldly undermining notions about character and plot. There’s a ferocity to her wit, a cunning to her deconstructions — and always a devotion to language, its elasticity and limits. I admire Harryman’s rare mind, its gleeful feminism, broad intelligence, and anarchic inventiveness.”
—Lynne Tillman

“Language Poetry still makes nearly everything else in the contemporary scene seem like overplayed, lobotomized Motown compared to its stringent hip-hop. But there’s a dizzying variety of tendencies under the Language Poetry tent, ranging from Zaum-like pure lyricism to the sort of FrankfurtSchool-meets-John Ashbery tendency found in the work of poets like CarlaHarryman. THE WORDS AFTER CARL SANDBURG’S ROOTABAGA STORIES AND JEAN-PAUL SARTRE is typical Harryman: intelligent, sardonic, and elliptical to the point of delirium. Essentially three long, disjunctive prose poems, this is not a’novel’ in any conventional sense. ‘Variations on a theme’ is more like it,since there’s no plot per se, though there are recurrent images and themes. THE WORDS is ‘after’ Sandburg and Sartre not in the sense of homage or loose translation; rather, Harryman turns to the earlier texts as ideological image banks whose fever dreams she exposes, then rifts along with andrecodes. Here, for instance, she takes up the pitch and syntax of Sandburg’s smarmy children’s book (Rootabaga Stories) and leads it off into a meta-critique: ‘Watch out has never been reported in the newspaper to havebeen seen dancing on a dancing spool in the sky, but when we read, weimagine the pressperson writing down words ejaculated from the fraught and frozen voices of a world as if they were the observations of a fully neutralinterlocutor and we say watch out.’ One pleasure to be had in this sort of writing is the rather ascetic one ofremaining awake to the ruses of language and history…. But if this is profoundly disenchanted stuff, it’s precisely Harryman’s wised-up relation to the ideological dimension of culture that provides the stage for herhar, d-won bursts of lyricism: “one can’t see the mirror on the tip of theflower.”…
—Thad Ziolkowski, The Village Voice


CARLA HARRYMAN is the author of twelve books of poetry, prose plays, and essays, most recently the Essay Press publication Adorno’s Noise, two experimental novels, Gardener of Stars (2001) and The Words: after Carl Sandburg’s Rootabaga Stories and Jean-Paul Sartre (1999). Harryman teaches in the Department of English at Eastern Michigan University and is on the faculty of the Milton Avery School of the Arts Graduate Program at Bard College.