On Renee Gladman’s One Long Black Sentence
On this page of Renee Gladman’s One Long Black Sentence, I can’t help but see a little humanoid figure, teetering on stick legs, its arms outstretched all Vitruvian. Very little around it corroborates this—but the eye wants what the eye wants, and what I want for some reason is the angel of history to stay hovering.
Because Gladman is a poet—though she is far from only that—I want to call each page in the book a poem, even as the book’s title contradicts this. If the book is indeed a single sentence, one that crosses page after unnumbered page, it is a thoroughly undiagrammable and unparsable one. On other pages of the book, the white lines look like they could actually be cursive, just written a bit too sloppily to be legible—this is “asemic writing” as it is traditionally conceived, script-like mark-making that falls outside of linguistic signification. These lines land somewhere between city grid, color field painting, and 3D modeling, nonidexical but skirting around recognizable forms.
This particular page, however, with its startlingly rectilinear central character, is a departure from that visual idiom. The lines look more bramble than phrase, the white pen’s lines producing a flat impasto, self-erasing as it doubles back. Only at the extremities of the page—the “figure’s” “arms,” for example—does the suggestion of scribble override that of tangle. For the most part though, the page is structured by the impression of sharp right angles formed by dense scraggles of looping lines, a solid made up of trajectories, making the descriptor of asemic writing seem not quite right. Rather than written lines extending across a page, what we have here is endearingly portrait-like. Two brackets frame the bottom of the figure like loose crosshairs, lest you look away.
What feels important about this page is what it reveals about Gladman’s aesthetic vision. Though her work is often described as abstract, hers is not an abstraction born out of a pointed avoidance of signification. It is instead interested in the structuring conditions of that signification, of appearing at all. In a forum conversation with other experimental African American writers, Gladman writes:
But what is great about fiction, or rather prose … is that in having to face the sentence, again and again, in the context of building or skirting or dismantling some kind of narrative, you make contact with the mechanics of experience…What is cool is to add identifiers such as “Blackness” or “queerness” to the question of experience. How quickly that (historical) narrative of wholeness, of centeredness, of capture breaks down. 
For artists of marginalized identities, the price of abstraction often boils down to a choice between ostracism from established discourses or assimilation into universalizing formalist analysis. Race, perhaps due to its proximity to color, is uniquely situated in these conversations in that it is invokable in a fully deracinated form. The use of the color black by Black artists, for example, are frequently interpreted exclusively in racial terms, such that the interpretation paradoxically erases race and reduces it to form. And while some versions of this race-color alignment feel potentially fruitful, especially since Gladman is deeply engaged with the racial politics of aesthetics as a theorist-practitioner, the identification of racial Blackness as topos does very little in and of itself for interpretation, and risks collapsing into critical platitudes about representation and subversion.
Neither would a purely colorblind account of this work prove particularly satisfying or accurate. Perhaps we can start by noting that the page is black—and then what? In a review of the book for Bookforum, Albert Mobilio asks, “Is the ‘long black sentence’ the motionless container, the space around the restless, declaratively white line?” Along these same lines, Fred Moten writes in his “Anindex” at the end of the book that this background is really a “blackground: that nonrepresentational capacity that lets all representation take place.” Both of these sentiments suggest that the inversion of black and white, foreground and background, do not constitute a perfectly substitutive reversal, wherein all of the cultural baggage of the binary are simply flip-flopped, i.e. black is good/subject/central, white is bad/object/peripheral.
What exactly is granted by this tradeoff between black and white? Think, for example, of how white marks on a black surface invoke types of mark-making that are subtractive rather than additive, such that Gladman’s drawings do not “blacken the substrate,” as she writes in a related project , but instead maybe constitute a revision or an incision into the readymade world of the page. This is drawing that resembles writing that resembles etching, “language with its skin peeled back” , or maybe merely scratched away. On the diametric opposite end, the covers and spine of the book are embroidered in white thread with the title, author, and a pair of Gladman’s drawings. Through bump and crevice, mark-making becomes a thoroughly tactile activity.
Moten, in his characteristically elliptical anindex, reads One Long Black Sentence in a Black radical tradition that is preoccupied with performative explorations of freedom, of finding an ongoing out in a world that is otherwise unlivably anti-Black. Moten has previously described this out as a “cut” and a “break,” often in relation to his pet obsessions with poetry and jazz, but in Gladman’s work, he finds the possibility of something else. “What if discontinuity is more of a bend than a break?” he writes, “What if a break is, in fact, a bend—” In a different context, Gordon Teskey writes what he calls “bent abstraction,” a form of abstraction that “renounces transcendence by entering time”—it forsakes the allure of peerlessness for the pleasures of materializing . A sentence, it seems, is a line that bends without breaking, unlike the poetic line, which breaks constantly and with vigor.
For Gladman, however, this distinction is a bit squishier. Sentences find their movement through bending, their constituent lines plumping up as they skew and cross and torque. Disruption is a continuous and ongoing event. Her drawings bend towards the crook of a question mark, but not as a commitment to indeterminacy or ambiguity. Simply, a body might appear out of the stuff of language and nothing might become of it. It is not an every-body, a little too distinctive to be a stick figure, but also not any recognizable figure. It is a body that remains resolutely unincorporated, not representing, which is to say, not doing the work that representing would require. Thick swoops of translucent white cup the body while it bends and is bent by the lines that surround it.
 Terrance Hayes and Evie Shockley, eds. “African American Experimental Poetry Forum,” Jubilat 16 (2009): 124.
 Renee Gladman, Plans for Sentences (Wave Books, 2022), 3.
 Renee Gladman, Calamities (Wave Books, 2016), 102.
 Gordon Teskey, “Bent Abstraction,” ELH 88, no. 2 (2021): 319.
Gladman, Renee. Calamities. Wave Books, 2016.
Gladman, Renee. One Long Black Sentence. Image Text Ithaca Press, 2020.
Gladman, Renee. Plans for Sentences. Wave Books, 2022.
Hayes, Terrance and Evie Shockley, eds. “African American Experimental Poetry Forum.” Jubilat 16 (2009): 115-54.
Mobilio, Albert. “Renee Gladman and Fred Moten: One Long Black Sentence.” Bookforum Vol 27., Issue 3. September/Octoboer/November 2020. https://www.bookforum.com/print/2703/renee-gladman-fred-moten-one-long-black-sentence-24184
Teskey, Gordon. “Bent Abstraction.” English Literary History, no. 2 (2021): 315-341.