On Plans for Sentences

Renee Gladman. Plans for Sentences. Seattle: Wave Books, 2022. 176 pages.  

The first time I read one of Renee Gladman’s Ravicka novels—Event Factory, and probably ten years ago—there was an immediate sense of being inside a series of prolonged arrivals, of being almost but never quite where I was. Disoriented isn’t really the right word, but from the moment the narrator first addresses someone, claiming to have “started [her] Ravic right then,” (12) I felt I was being lead through an intricate process of verbal mapping, one that moved with a precise but always shifting choreography, whose language was formed from an ongoing process of wandering, pointing, retreating, drawing-out, and watching this new city “that had not yet become a city” (17) disappear and reappear continuously.

Even while never really settling in, the more the narrator experiences the material conditions of the imagined city-state of Ravicka, the more things come alive—their topographies take on several gradations as they cluster, darken, and brighten. What was a “large, yellow and tender” place, becomes “greener yellow at the start of the day,” (13) and the people the narrator meets, though they always introduce themselves by name, become most memorable for the way they articulate their bodies, like Simon, who “…began to wind the arm of something. The advent of a sweet song…,” (12) or Pavla, who, while kissing the narrator, unclenches her fist in her lap. Drawn through the surface of everything is a “crisis,” the “truth” of which can’t be named, though it lives in the sentences. This crisis also haunts the other Ravicka books, and it echoes through Calamities, where Gladman chronicles a passage from writing to drawing, where a feeling of being somehow without, not quite inside language exceeds and “[overflows] the walls” (32) of her writing. This desire is palpable in Prose Architectures and One Long Black Sentence,where her sentence-drawings, now with increasing amounts of color detail, live on every page. They conjure, among other works, Julie Mehretu’s early work, where Gladman has described “all at once the lines in the world head for the periphery…”. [2] They make a moving and liminal syntax newly visible, and continue to imagine ways it can become inhabitable and experienced in embodied ways.

There’s something so striking about the way Plans for Sentences, Gladman’s new and beautiful book, is able to not only shift and expand this visual field yet again—placing ink and watercolor drawings and texts across the page from each other, labeling each a “figure” and placing them in dialogue—but also reconsider a phenomenon all her work seems to orbit: the way narrative can move and regard itself moving, the way the grain of a voice can somehow look at itself, and create structure for its looking. When I turn the pages and feel the way the figures work together, I’m also reminded of how Gladman’s interest in regarding narrative’s innerworkings has an always outward-facing quality, how larger social structures like cities appear through the verbiage of the text and across the tightly-wound lines of her drawings. They evoke the trace of bodies that move across and make them, each one becoming “…an act or moment of thought having to do with architecture or blackness or the body or writing,” as Gladman recently said in an interview. [1] “Each act marks a point in space; it constellates, becomes a site.” That her narratives and drawings interact and exist at representation’s edge makes the reader especially attuned to their energies, what Fred Moten calls “The germinal, breeding, long-chain molecular movement and inflammation that … threatens and promises contagion, the communicability of narrative, of telling stories in and against the impossibility of communication…”. He also gets at the temporal gaps that can exist here, that make frictions and openings, and that hold “ – the minute – as threshold” (110) also at its heart.  

The futurity, or future tenses of the text of Plans places a unique grammatical emphasis on forward direction, though there is a looping, focused quality to reading it. “These sentences will be places of moss,” Gladman writes, “These places will emerge from something thick inside something glowing and will light upon a series of dense clauses, a paragraph for the planet / These dense woods will hold the history of where we moss and where we blacken and will be the fog void, inverted and full.” On the opposite page is a mossy green drawing made of sentence-lines, ones that fork and billow into what looks like the shape of a city and its underground systems, (96-97) and which contains, as Gladman says in her acknowledgements, a plan for the future sentences I had just read, “(i.e., their actual futures).” As the sentences accumulate and make recurring, deeply visceral patterns, turning nouns verbs (antenna, graining, spire, void) and breaking off before the period, I wonder how to think about the futures they point to, if they’re structurally deferred in the present, and is it enough to just experience them this way, in the elongated space between the always approaching future and the already here.

In “The Sentence as a Space for Living: Prose Architectures,” an essay she published in Tripwire, Renee writes about her relationship to “origin and passage,” conjuring the gaps and absences her work often wants to give language to, tracing them to the fact of historic displacements, forced migrations across cities and continents that create impossible relationships to original languages and individuated, linear selves. She writes: “Yet, the violence of that erasure—all the inheritances interrupted—is as foundational to my relationship to language and subjectivity as is grammar. There remains some aspect of my speaking that expects a different mode of expression than English provides. I know this because of my tendency to encode as I write, also to invent languages as I’ve done in half of my books. I open my mouth in my own life and I want to distort, rearrange, mispronounce the available vocabulary” (92). When I read “These sentences will be the breathing on the other side of the paragraph; they will open and roll and roll and go quiet, backward over spent breath, graining the vapors,” and look at the drawing across the page, with tightly stacked sentence-lines that stack and spire beside yellow swaths of paint, (71-72) I am amazed to feel writing happening here, to see what these figures show me of its interior. Plans for Sentences somehow occupies this grammar and fiercely splits it open yet again, watching with curiosity as language turns towards itself, not with a drive toward assignation or resolution, but toward making an occasion, a vantage point for looking at the unknown. Like a translation does, it addresses the past and the now-future simultaneously, making an event happen that can be, has already been folded and redrawn. Here something can hover just around determinacy, with a bent for quickly changing direction, though not without the real instinct of a dream.  


[1] Renee Gladman and Mirriam Karraker. “Renee Gladman in Conversation with Mirriam Karraker.” The Poetry Project Newsletter. www.poetryproject.org/publications/newsletter/268-spring-2022/renee-gladman-in-conversation-with-miriam-karraker?mc_cid=9d658b22a4&mc_eid=bfc1506175

[2] Renee Gladman, “Untitled (Environments).” e-flux Journal. https://www.e-flux.com/journal/92/203283/untitled-environments/.

Works Cited

Gladman, Renee. Calamities. New York: Wave Books, 2016.

Gladman, Renee. Event Factory. Urbana: Dorothy, A Publishing Project, 2010.

Gladman, Renee. Plans for Sentences. New York: Wave Books, 2022.

Gladman, Renee. Prose Architectures. New York: Wave Books, 2017.

Gladman, Renee. “The Sentence as a Space for Living: Prose Architecture.” Tripwire. tripwirejournal.files.wordpress.com/2019/06/tw.renee_.pdf

Moten, Fred. Afterword. Calamities. New York: Wave Books, 2016.

Moten, Fred. Anindex. One Long Black Sentence. Ithaca: Image Text Ithaca Press, 2020.


Alexis Almeida grew up in Chicago. She is the author of I Have Never Been Able to Sing (Ugly Duckling Presse 2018) and most recently the translator of Dalia Rosetti's Dreams and Nightmares (Les Figues 2019) and the co-translator of Carlos Soto Román's 11 (UDP, forthcoming). She teaches at the Bard Microcollege at the Brooklyn Public Library and edits 18 Owls Press.