Night with Objects: A Complex Sentence about Marjorie Welish’s A Complex Sentence

Marjorie Welish. A Complex Sentence. Minneapolis: Coffee House Press, 2021. 105 pages.

Marjorie Welish’s A Complex Sentence is a book about another book (and a few other books, too); if The Cantos are a house of mirrors, then Welish’s latest effort is another house built around that house—something of an antiexegesis, an entombment—; just as Pound reinvents history, Welish implies that we must reinvent the act of reading in order to read A Complex Sentence: if we are “Reading otherwise. / Reading sometimes. / Not reading” (65), then what else are we but “The vanquished reading the vanquished” (76)……what people tend to say about The Cantos is that they don’t know what to say about them—that they are inscrutable, Modernist to the (vanishing) point of irretrievable fragmentation—which, of course, results in a lot of things being said about them, as evinced by the heaps and mounds, kilos and pounds of Pound scholarship that have accumulated and which continue to accumulate ever since death called pencils down for Pound and his masterpiece of early modernism; in a set-theoretic sense, it should be beyond the bounds of literary criticism to define the boundaries of literary criticism, but we might suggest that there are other methodological byways or inroads to the heart of The Cantos to be found outside of criticism (or within it, if we are bold enough, again, to reconceive of those boundaries)—and with the resourcefulness of a great scientist, Welish breaks Pound open in just this manner: by closing him shut: just as Julius Wagner-Jauregg discovered that syphilis can be treated with malaria, Welish fights Pound’s fire with like fire—in either case we may fairly use the term pyrotherapy……A Complex Sentence is one part literature, one part criticism, an ars poetica, a vessel of artistic frustration, a shadow of formal logic, a compendium of obscure quotations, and an enigma, a shadow without an object; folks are usually too quick to draw comparisons to Stein when they discuss any work which strands its reader in an uncanny literary landscape inhabited by the skeletons of grammar, but here the comparison runs deeper: like Stein, Welish’s writing proves its own point: Stein and Welish are of a particular philosophy of language that enacts itself, is its own proof; in “Brass Toy” we are tipped off to Pound’s presence by the use of direct (though uncited) quotations from The Cantos, such as: “so that vines burst from my fingers”—this quotation concludes a stanza in which the speaker describes their own reading of and communion with (“fingers spread hypothetically in an encounter”) some unnamed text (hint: it starts with a C and ends with a sea) such that the quotation from the text in question becomes a part of the speaker’s own understanding of it, refiguring its meaning so that it is self-reflexive, auto-affective, a backwards mise en abyme (but wait just a minute—who says an abyss only falls in one direction, is only vertical?)—Welish’s diction is nearly-archival, though she has enjambment and other visual techniques at her disposal through which a particular scholarly lyricism is discovered (most of A Complex Sentence is descriptive in nature (and of nature, in an ecology of texts, if you will)—and again we are reminded of Stein, a discoverer and experimenter in the most literal sense of those words; much like in Tender Buttons, there is something brutally realist about this sort of word-probing (which, here, is a surface growing over the referential unconscious of the opposite Poundian project—concerned with hidden variables beyond the reach of a probe which are nonetheless “there” somewhere—sublating them both))—as Charles Bernstein proves through his essay/poem “Artifice of Absorption”, an essay can be a poem (or a poem an essay), and by being so can turn its own weaknesses into strengths and clear the ground for “tropics” of meaning, whether scholarly or poetic or both; he writes: “…why not / a criticism intoxicated with its own metaphoricity, / or tropicality: one in which the limits of / positive criticism are made more audibly / artificial; in which the inadequacy of our / explanatory paradigms is neither ignored / nor regretted but brought into fruitful play.”, and we may find such a playspace, such a jungle, not just within but between Pound’s Cantos and Welish’s A Complex Sentence, amidst their winding, emergent ecosystem; again in “Brass Toy” as well as in the final piece “…periphery: a collective”, Welish takes as her issue Pound’s use of ellipses......they are “neither a despairing blank nor a mosaic of conjecture”, “a lyric fray”, “Implicature minus the twilight”, “Empiricism on a shoestring”, “self-interfering knots”, ultimately something of an accordion-spacetime (of which the musical as well as the structural analogy proves useful: coordinates across places and moments sound off, but they also shift toward and away from each other—an aesthetic priority confounding the historical record—and it is this very expansion and contraction itself that forces a song through them, their gorgeous chord thus proven by a poet’s lung); ellipses are a fissure, but there is an “eloquence of the fissure”, while the colon “puts necessity to the ideology…of expulsion if not exile” (we should note her tone here above all else (and above that, the word exile)); his ellipses are “neither omission nor deletion nor possibly reduction but rather a segmental arc oscillating”; “Full stops trail off/come forth” but “ellipses not impressive to cultivated watchful”; her concluding observation: “Dichotomies lie unattended”—this is criticism in the literal as well as the everyday sense; Pound the obfuscator is (un)obfuscated; Pound the exile exiles himself and is (un)exiled (“4 giants at the 4 corners / three young men at the door / and they digged a ditch round about me / lest the damp gnaw thru my bones / to redeem Zion with justice” (The Cantos 429)); in this case his poems are not islands but rather castles with moats dug around them, and Welish is teasing Pound with her own drawbridge, sailing boats in his moats (what is a rift in Pound is a raft in Welish: his schizo to her multi: the capital H in his HISTORY sundered into a conspicuous I); but to be blunt for a moment: reading A Complex Sentence is a complex task, and that is partly the fault of the word “reading”; in the case of both Pound and Welish, parataxis—whether an act of cowardice or of bravery—montage—whether arctic or tropical—makes “reading” decidedly nonlinear; the logics of elliptic and song are just as important as the logic of logic (take, for example, “Of Sentences Recently”, which opens with the same passage written/spoken twice in a row—first in italics, then not:

Speaking of lines of fight! My apologies, and now in English.

Singularities in multiplicities: slippage, leakage, breaking points, exceptional events these were on my mind and orchestrated. De-territorialized cantos wherein raveling makes sense to noise

demanded of us beyond the onslaught of letters demanded of us beyond the onslaught of letters (80)

yet both times (—word for word, this entire passage is repeated—) it was “in” English; the first instance serves as the “line of flight” (in the terms of Deleuze and Guatarri, from whom she is borrowing) for the second instance, whereas the first has only its own bootstraps to tug on—an “original repetition”; thereby a refrain is established: a noise “beyond the onslaught of letters”, in both the sense of glyphs and lettres (but hold on a second—are we re-territorializing these cantos?); see also the book’s titular poem, which serves as documentation of an artistic/written practice (one which likely produced the very text in question), in which composers Pierre Boulez and Iannis Xenakis make appearances, nodding in the direction of stochastic composition, total serialism, and the tension between these two modes—; between the dice and the strong hand that casts them); Welish’s A Complex Sentence is ultimately a book to be wandered around in, and so any review of it might likewise meander or grope about the dark: if there is a “composition by field” then there is also a “field” with splinters of moonlight and swathes of inky darkness on it—a horizontal abyss where “It is night / With objects” and where we are liable to trip and fall on our baffled, bespectacled, hell-bent, smiling faces—where sunrise will eventually spill on anything but a final answer, a grand narrative, or an -ism (besides a schism).

Works Cited   

Ezra Pound, The Cantos of Ezra Pound (London: Faber and Faber, 1975), 429.       

Coleman Edward Dues is the associate content producer at the Academy of American Poets, where he produces Poem-a-Day. Some of his work is published or forthcoming in Black Warrior Review, Always Crashing, Ligeia, and Blazing Stadium, among other places. In New York, they call him Tex.