On the line

This essay is developed from the written score for a lecture by the same title delivered over Zoom in December, 2023. The images included were projected during the lecture, though not all images that appeared during the lecture appear in this publication of it. All uncited images are my own. You may find that what follows looks best when viewed using a laptop/desktop browser.

1. I am here this evening to talk with you about the line, and on the line.

1.1. A line is a mathematical image for the space between two points. Or, following Charles Olson, a line may be the gesture by which a poem joins “any two points in creation”. I want to think about the space between points as well as about the poetic line as that thing that may happen between them. But as always when I begin this kind of thinking, I find myself asking: what are the grounds of my thought? What are the basic agreements I’m making? Can I slow myself down enough that I can see these, reason through them? Therefore, I want to think as slowly as I can about this word, “line”, that is so fundamental to writing and writing about poems.

2. Our English word “line” comes from the Latin word “linum,” which is the word for the flax plant. 

2.1. Flax is the common name for many species of plant including Linum usitatissimum, common flax, a plant that grows to a height of about 1.2 meters, in more or less single stems. (Image: Köhler's Medizinal-Pflanzen (Atlas of Medical Plants) in the Biodiversity Heritage Library online. Collection of the Missouri Botanical Garden, Peter H. Raven Library. Below that are bundles of flax drying on a field in East Flanders, Belgium, a historical and contemporary flax-producing region.)  

2.2. From this plant which the Romans called “linum” comes the fiber called “linen.” Linen, a strong and durable textile, is woven from the thread made from the bast fibers of those tall stems.

2.3. Flax, once harvested, retted, dried, stripped, carded, and spun, may be warped on a loom and woven into that strong and durable textile. The vertical lines of the plant are, on the loom, transformed into horizontal lines of thread.

2.4. I first encountered the upright lines of flax plants while living in the countryside of East Flanders, Belgium, near the border with West Flanders, where flax has been cultivated since that place was under Roman rule. Until the first part of the 20th century, Flanders was the center of flax production for the entire world. (Experiments with flax production in northern US states mostly failed because of the economics of cotton production: enslaved people’s work made cotton a cheaper crop.) After World War II, much flax cultivation moved to the northeastern part of the then-USSR. Even now, you can buy beautiful linen cloth from producers in Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia.

2.5. The flax plant grows to my hips and flowers in the summer, in the morning, for a few hours only. When I am among the flax fields in Flanders on my bicycle in late June, I am surrounded by a blue plane that in places seems to go all the way to the horizon. The blue plane is millions of tiny open flowers, each supported by a tall and supple stem. Vertical lines support the illusion of an unbroken plane of water; water that is in fact the flax flowers facing the sun.

3. Flax was first domesticated in the region called the Fertile Crescent, now comprising places we call Jordan, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Palestine/Israel, southeastern Turkey, northern Kuwait, western Iran, northern Egypt, and Cyprus. (Image below: Depiction of harvest of flax in the Book of the Dead, from a linen mummy bandage. Egypt: Ptolemaic Period, 305-30 BCE. Collection of the Museum of University College London, UC 32434.)
3.1. Like the threads that trail from hems and get caught in doors, or that unravel from a blanket's binding, or that stick to one's clothes after sewing, flax is a line that crosses the world with humans, ignoring and predating borders; indicating the movement of empires but also the movement of skills and technologies in agriculture and in craft.

3.2. But I am already moving away from the tangled center of thinking, moving out along a single line as if the single line is the fact of thought. As Fanny Howe writes in her essay “Bewilderment,” from her collection The Wedding Dress: Meditations on Word and Life (University of California Press, 2003), “Time is not a progression but something more warped and refractive. Language, as we have it, fails to deal with confusion (14). Language itself—my language—gives me a sense of the line as a picture of the world as it is. One thing follows the last, and the next follows along. 

3.3. I’ll make a loop, then: Howe also writes that the trouble with English—her language and mine—is that it cannot say two things simultaneously. A line is a line. Though our language may suggest that the form of thought is a line, my being in the world knows that the straight trajectory is not the only form of the line. And so I want to try to stay in a way of thinking that is not only moving out along those resolute threads that lead from Here to There, but that also allows for tangle or crossing.

3.4. As I think about Howe’s problem of simultaneity in language, I am reminded of a moment in Leslie Marmon Silko's book Ceremony (the edition I’m citing is the 2006 reissue from Penguin), when Tayo describes his thinking as being “tangled up like the colored threads from old Grandma's wicker sewing basket when he was a child” (6). For Tayo, this experience of “the memories [...] tangled with the present” is a result of trauma, war, deracination. It indicates his experience of the brokenness of an intricate universe of relation to which he (and we) belong(s). But the image—so familiar from the sewing boxes of my childhood—has stayed with me both as a way to understand the tangle of thinking that may result from pain, and as an image that can encourage me to look for meaning-making in places where the ways of meaning I’m familiar with do not appear.

3.5. I would like to set that image of tangled threads next to the image of the botanical textbook, where the single stalk of flax is removed from its context. In the sewing basket, things touch differently than they do on the loom or in the field. I realize this thing called the line may not be as straight, or only straight, as I had imagined. And not as single, either. Things are looping, touching, crossing, too.

4.1. The thread made from the fibers of the flax plant is strong. If you were to take a spool of this thread into the world with a friend, one of you holding the spool and another holding the end of the thread, you might walk away from your friend as far as the length of the spooled thread would allow, to find yourselves connected by a physical representation of that mathematical image describing a ray. And still the thread would not break.

4.2. In any case, each time you walk away from one another, waving and waving or rushing for a train about to depart, you draw out invisibly between you a line beginning with you and moving into the space between and toward the points each of you make.
4.3. Howe writes, “The being both inside and outside simultaneously of the world is not just a writer's problem by any means” (10). She begins her essay by writing that she is thinking about bewilderment as “a way to enter the day as much as the work” (7). No poetics is not also involved in working out—in having been worked out by—an ethics. We are thinking and we are living in the world. In other words, can my image of the line come from anywhere but the world in which you walk away from me? Or in which I wait at the border, in a line of other waiting people, to cross and see you again?

4.4. The conceptual image of the line may seem to me to precede the physical line—holding the spool, I walk away from you knowing as I do what a line looks like, feels like—but who can say that the mathematician who gave me that image did not find themself able to describe the world only having seen, since childhood, the lines that make the world up?

4.5. It is after all lines that make the world up.

4.6. The line that your two connected bodies indicate as you walk away from one another. The between that you make together. The lines between me and each of you. They way our betweens indicate some difference at the same time as they indicate some relation. Also the lines of our walking, both the movements we are making in space and the footprints we make in dust or on asphalt, and the line of the shadow that draws out behind each of us in the sun, and that string, held between you and our friend. 


Under our feet are the invisible lines of longitude and latitude that section the globe, the lines that mark municipal, regional, national and other geopolitical borders.
There are the lines of empire and colonialism, the lines of the ships making triangular voyages centuries ago, their wakes still shaping my thought as I speak to you.

There are the lines made by missiles in flight,
and the glowing lines on a computer screen that detail the map of the distant territory and identify human beings elected for death.
There are the tiny crossed lines the drone makes, high above the earth, in the clear air.
There are the lines of deepwater drilling systems and of oil pipelines which, like the missiles, mark the places of empire's continuance.

There are the lines made by razor wire looping in midair along the lines of Eurostar tracks heading from Calais to the tunnel, and there are the lines of buoys equipped with saw blades submersed in the Río Grande/Río Bravo.

There is the line made by domestic plumbing, the line of water from the tap to the glass, and the line a filament used to make in an incandescent bulb, still my image of light.
There are the lines of the electric grid that connect me, as I sit here typing, to the transformer and distributor, and to the power plant from which, via the intangible lines of commerce and exchange, I am connected to coal mines, fracking sites, oil sands, pipelines. And
these lines also connect me to lines of refusal at those sites.

I am trying to say that I cannot think about “the line” without also thinking—and first thinking—that I am here with you, and that we are here together inside of these ongoing histories, which permeate and constitute the literature I love and love to make. And when I try to find the line on the page and am redirected to the world, this is what I find.

There is the line of the stream meandering through the landscape; the line of the culvert; the line of the road.
There are the lines  our feet make when city planners misunderstand our preference for hypoteneuses or foot traffic.
Above my head, the line of migrators widens and becomes a V.

6.1. Despite the apparently linear progress of time, I have gone almost nowhere: I find myself more or less in the same place as I began, asking myself what I mean when I say I am here to think about the line. Howe is correct: time—the time of thinking, maybe any time in language—is a warped and refracted relation.

6.2. In her screenprints, Corita Kent often printed lines of text that were distorted, parts of words blown out of proportion to other text, or lines that appear inverted, upside-down, or mirrored. In her 1966 screenprint green up (right), I find myself standing on the ‘other side’ of the image, reading its mirrored text from ‘behind’. The words “When was the last time you saw a miracle?” flow in wavy lines from right to left over the light-green field and white letters that spell out ‘green up’. Or, really, that spell out ‘gre’/ ‘en’ (inverted)/ ‘up’ (left to right, rotated 90°).

6.3. The horizontal and vertical lines of the world are one way of seeing. And the warping and refraction in Corita Kent’s prints remind me, like the thread in Tayo’s grandmother’s sewing basket, of other ways of seeing and of other places to stand.

(Above: green up [66-11], Corita, 1966. Screenprint on paper. Collection of the Corita Art Center, Los Angeles.)

7.1. Hold on, though. I am trying to think about the line, and already I have split my thread of thought into a dozen filaments, finer and finer. Let me try again. Another loop, to hold my thoughts together.

7.2. For much of my commute from central Dublin to the university where I work, I walk straight along the Grand Canal from the west-central districts of Dublin 8 to the bridge at Leeson Street, where I would turn off to catch the bus. The canal was built from 1759 until 1804 and used for cargo until 1960. It is one of three roughly parallel lines of water in this city—the others are the Royal Canal on the north side, and the Liffey, the estuarial river that divides Dublin into north and south. Seven locks divide the canal between roughly the start of my walk and the point at which it meets the ocean.

7.3. Walking along the canal daily on the way to work last year, I listened to recordings of Allen Ginsberg’s classes at Naropa in the 1980s. (The recordings are in the Internet Archive.) I listened to his talks on poetic form, especially one on the form and composition of Anglo-Saxon metrical lines, over and over. Was what I meant by “line” what Ginsberg’s deep knowing of the history of English prosody meant? 

7.4. Yes, but not only. I wanted to think about something I often said in my classes: that form was brought to us by our canons and our peers, but that it also came from the world; that we could go to the world to find it and to think about it, and that describing the forms the world gave us, sometimes by talking about them and sometimes by making poems in them, could teach us about formal meaning. In fact, I realized, what I was trying to say was that formal meaning-making in prosodic terms was not far at all from the kinds of formal meanings we read in the world every day. That nearness could be a gentle hand extended toward those among us who may have felt wary of poetry; for poets, it could be a spreading wide of the narrow hands of our received forms and habitual uses, to gather the paradise of the world’s own ways of meaning.


8.1. Thinking about the line, I can't help thinking of Jacques Derrida, writing about the telephone and telegraph, and about the Dublin-wanderer Leopold Bloom, in an essay full of “detour[s]”. (The essay is “Ulysses Gramophone: Hear Say Yes in Joyce”, and it is collected in Acts of Literature [Jacques Derrida, ed. Attridge; New York: Routlege, 1991]. I first read it during my own “aimless wandering”—doctoral studies—and more recently reread it when I read Ulysses alongside a dozen undergraduates in a colleague’s class I audited at a small public college in rural Maine.) 

8.2. Derrida’s lines, like Leopold Bloom’s, are all loops.

8.3. The world’s first commercial telegraph company was in the United Kingdom and Ireland. Miles of wire strung between wooden poles or dragged behind ships to lie on the ocean floor, so that I can tap out, one letter at a time, a message to you.

(pages 258-259.)
8.4. Like the canal, the line-making of the telegraph was a colonial project. The joined points, these two islands and their complicated relationships.

8.5. There isn’t a lot of difference between that dotted-dashed telegraph line and the one connecting us here, laid between us under the ocean or bouncing from earth to satellite and back.

8.6. I am on the line to you from Dublin, connected to you and separated from you by the line of your gaze and by the invisible waves that are the vibrations from my vocal cords traveling through the microphone in my computer toward your timpanum. Between us are the lines of undersea cables, lines of radio energy from wifi routers, lines of passage from earth to satellites to earth and back. We are held in an invisible network of connections, as if the white space at the edge of each line—on the left and on the right—were suddenly active and alive.

8.7. What is the shape of the line between us—the poetic line, these other lines? The time it takes for me to spell the words? The inches of lead type? The distance from me on one shore to you on the other? The thickness of the wire that carries my words to you? The length of this sentence in pixels, millimeters, inches? All these lines, made both of the thinking-stuff of poetry and of the stuff-stuff of the world: lead and time, rare earth metals and water.


At the top of the blank document, the cursor waits, a tiny vertical line indicating the beginning of thought.
The lines we make in the poem are traces first of all of our hands moving from one side of the paper to the other, and
traces of our minds moving from idea to idea, image to image, word to word.
Neither movement is as straightforward as it initially seems—even the line is composed of the many lines of each letter, punctuation mark.
Although it can seem as though “the line” moves from left to right across the page, in fact the written line moves up and down, along straight lines and curves, over and over until it finds an end.

There are lines of descent, the tracings we make of heritage and inheritance as well as of belonging, lines of thought from teacher to student and masterworker to apprentice.
And then there is the line made by hand plus tool (whether it is spade or pen we dig with).

Last of all there is the brief and delicate horizontal line we make as our final gesture, wrapped in a shroud.

(Left: The Death of King Dasharatha, the Father of Rama. Folio from a Ramayana [detail], ca. 1605.
Attributed to India.
Opaque watercolor and gold on paper. Collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.)

9.1. This shroud is made of linen, woven from the finespun threads of that fiber taken from that plant, taken from those fields of upright stems, taken from Egypt in 1919 by American archaeologists and brought back to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, where it can be viewed even now. The lines of empire and the lines of the strung loom, the lines of migration of human beings who bring with them the techniques and technologies of agriculture and of textile production, the lines of the flax field, the lines of irrigation canals and the lines of rain, the lines of ocean crossings from Africa to Europe and North America, and the line of the human body converge in this garment.

9.2. It seems to me that the poetic line and the line of the submersible drilling platform, or the line of the drone strike, or the line of desire made by walking over and over are related; that the objects I make out of language (and pixels, and ink, and paper, and the supply chains and labor relationships that make these possible) are bound up in these other lines, just as the shroud holds the facts of its making and use.

9.3. I have been trying to talk about poems this entire time: to talk about the line, not as an aesthetic gesture or trace that is to be found exclusively in a poem, but as something that bears a relation to, and draws its ability to mean from, indeed comes from, the rest of the world of which the poem is part as soon as it exists.

9.4. I am thinking about the poetic line as something that means because lines in the world mean. I am thinking about line form as something that the world has, as well as the poem has.

(Above: Shroud [linen]
Late New Kingdom to early Third Intermediate Period, ca. 1186–945 B.C.E. Geography: From Egypt, Upper Egypt, Thebes, Royal Cache Valley, burial of Prince Amenemhat near Cliff Tomb [MMA 1021], on mummy 19.3.208, MMA excavations, 1918–19. Collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.)


10.1. The way we make a poetic line is never so simple as filling in a formula—whether mathematical (counting syllables, counting stresses) or visual (determining length relative to sheet format and to other lines, including the lines of poems we have read before).  

10.2. The poetic line does not exist in isolation on the page.

10.3. The poetic line does not descend only from our traditions of poetic line-making.

10.4. I think we also, and some poets deliberately do, make the poetic line in response and relationship to the lines of the world

10.5. In making such (poetic) lines, we bring ourselves to an awareness of how they touch that world/are touched by it. In other words, how the line of the poem is one possible extension to and from the world, and how the points it connects are you and me, or the world and you, or the world and me, and so on, infinitely.

11.1. I want to end by looking very briefly at two poems by Juliana Spahr and one by Layli Long Soldier. All three of the poems I want to touch on are long. Ideally, you would find these three poems and you would take a half an hour or so to read all of them aloud to yourself or someone else. There are a few excerpts below, and I hope to expand on these very brief readings at length in future.

11.2 Much of the thinking I have been able to do on these poems has been developed by talking about them with students at the University of Maine – Farmington; at Simpson College in Indianola, Iowa; and at University College Dublin. Thank you to all of you for helping me think through these poems, and for giving me reasons to do so.`

12.1. The first poem is by Juliana Spahr. It is “Transitory, Momentary”, from That Winter The Wolf Came (Commune Editions, 2015).

(This is a page-view of the poem on a two-page spread, to make the width of the lines apparent.
12.2. The poem’s subject matter is evanescent but also recurrent: the migration of birds, the forms of popular songs, love affairs as depicted in popular songs, resistance to state violence/protest movement formation, state violence against the Occupy movement, waves of capitalism, U.S. oil wars, labor and workers’ movements, the building of a barricade out of bricks despite knowing that the police will knock the barricade down, parenthood.

12.3. Migration, love affairs, pop songs, protest movements, oil wars, barricades (and so on) are things that seem stable or lasting (to some extent) while in place but that are revealed, over time, to be unstable or to end. They are also things that have duration insofar as they return: one instance of the thing is not the thing. The thing is composite, made up of all its recurrences. It is ending and beginning all at once, like the print we read from both sides.

12.4. “Transitory, Momentary” is made of lines that are very long. There are no stanza breaks.
12.5. The leading is thin, making the lines appear, from a distance (see above), to be a dense, prose-like object on the page. 

12.6. The length of the lines recalls the “long wobbling lines” of geese in the first line as well as the police advancing “in a line” on the first page.
12.7. But this is not a prose poem; that is, the lines seem to have been broken.

12.8. Therefore the poem's thickness and visual largeness can be taken to represent not an accident of sheet-format but a formal decision.
12.9. Visual breadth seems to be guiding the decisions the poem makes about line form. Is it only that?
12.11. The lines often break at “unusual” places: after words like “the,” “to,” “an,” “as,” “of” (all on p. 1).
12.12. Sometimes this kind of line ending indicates a syllabic line, but these lines are not equal in syllable count.

12.13. Ending lines on words like “the,” “of,” “to,” directs me to notice the instability of even seemingly minor things, like the poetic norm, often given in a classroom, of ending a line on an “important” word. In The Art of the Poetic Line, James Longenbach writes about the distinction between lines that “annotate” the sentence and lines that participate in grammar. By “annotate”, Longenbach means lines that break in places where grammar does not—against the construction of thought that takes place in the forms of phrase, clause, sentence.

12.14. Spahr's poem is made of lines that “annotate,” in Longenbach's words, the sentences that make it up. The sentences are sometimes long, sometimes short; sometimes simple, sometimes complex—but punctuated stops rarely coincide with the line breaks. There are just eight places where a comma, period, or question mark ends a line, in a poem of about 150 lines.

12.15. The way the lines in “Transitory, Momentary” annotate the grammar of the sentences unsettles the way this poem otherwise, in its tone and apparent refusal of the norms of prosody, at least pretends to be “straightforward”. The line breaks force me to notice the lines as lines, and as lines they are set counter the plainness of the language, the steadiness of the tone, and the familiar propeller of the sentences’ grammar. The line breaks also destabilize the sentences as such, forcing me to read phrases like “And just as often this sort of” and “third time clearing the park and they will clear it many more times and” on their own as well as within their proper sentences.

12.16. In Spahr’s poem, the lines themselves are evanescent, partial, broken up. No line contains the total meaning of a sentence. I can neither dwell on one at length, nor make sense of what follows without the partial information conveyed by those before and after. Equally, the lines are what returns in the poems. Rarely completely legible alone, it is in one another's company that sense begins to arrive.

12.17. Spahr's attention to the composite sense of the poem's lines bears a direct relationship to the Occupy Oakland movement and to the building and rebuilding of protest camps, even now. A movement happens again and again. No single “phrase” of it is complete on its own. Like protest movements and like migrating birds, this poem's lines are transitory—moving across and toward something—and momentary, lasting just briefly as themselves, until joining with something larger than themselves to become what they are becoming.

(‘this line’ on the platform edge of an Irish train station)

13.1. I want to look now, again very briefly, at Juliana Spahr’s poem “Dynamic Positioning”. Like “Transitory, Momentary”, this is a poem from Spahr’s collection That Winter The Wolf Came, and is a poem that for me could be the subject of hours of conversation, or of long study. Below are two brief excerpts from the poem. The one on the left is from the beginning of the poem. The one on the right is from the end of the poem.

13.2. This poem drew my interest at first because of its couplets. I simply like couplets. But I was surprised to find them in this book because they are so “poemly” and much of the book seems like it is working against assumptions about “poemliness”. (Even this poem does: “I will not tell/You their lives, their loves, their young children”, Spahr writes, the flatness of the language refusing lyric, and the language itself refusing narrative that could resolve these men into heroic or pathetic figures.) So I wondered: what is Spahr doing with these couplets?

13.3. I noticed, as in “Transitory, Momentary”, that the lines in “Dynamic Positioning” are mostly annotating lines. But, unlike the lines in “Transitory, Momentary” each line here begins with a capital letter. The capital letter makes me read each line as an object on its own. It also creates a feeling of restarting, since the grammatical norm is for the sentence to begin with a capital letter. So despite the lines themselves not being grammatically complete, I experience a tiny jolt of “newsentenceness” after each lin break.

13.4. Dynamic positioning is “a computer-controlled system to automatically maintain a vessel’s position and heading by using its own propellers and thrusters” (Wikipedia, “Dynamic positioning”.) Dynamic positioning is used by, among other kinds of vessels, the deepwater drilling units like Deepwater Horizon, the drilling rig that exploded in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010.

13.5. As I read the poem, experiencing the start-stop motion of the annotating line endings and capitalized line openings, I realize that Spahr’s lines make a kind of “propeller” and “thruster” relationship that forces me to locate myself newly at the start of each line, relative to the end of each previous line (and to my understanding of the sentence and the poetic line as traditions of meaning-making).

13.6. Spahr writes that workers who survived the Deepwater Horizon explosion noted that in the leadup to the explosion, the drill “kicked,” sending gas back through mud. The shortness and staccato patterning of the annotating lines and their initial capitals also recall that ‘kicking’ action.

13.7. Spahr has borrowed a second technique from the tradition of poetic line-making: the use of counted syllables. Each line has ten syllables with an irregular stress pattern, norming iambic as English-language sentences tend to do. This is one cause of the annotating lines: Spahr breaks lines rigidly after completing ten syllables. The strictness of this poetic form—the counted lines arranged into couplets—is in contrast to the plainness of language and somewhat detached tone of the lines themselves: “It is dynamic positioning that/Allows a semi-submersible the//Ability to hover there over/The well.”

13.8. In response to a tradition in which the famous claim “beauty is truth” is made, Spahr seems to be saying, no: truth is truth. Or, like Dylan Thomas, that there can be no elegy for the “majesty and burning” of these people's deaths beside their deaths themselves. In Spahr’s poem, the formal “beauty” of the couplets and their counted syllables is awkward, ungainly. No effort has been made to “prettify” the lines, which report the facts of the Deepwater Horizon explosion, by reforming the straightforward language of reportage or by composing of that language more ‘elegant’ or ‘surprising’ visual or formal lines.

13.9. However: one of the only places where the initial capitals and the syllabic lines resolve into ease—an ease that I recognize as one familiar form of poetic beauty—is the poem's final page, where Spahr names the workers killed in the explosion.

13.10. “Jason Anderson. Bubba Burkeen. Shane/M. Roshto. Donald Clark. Wyatt Kemp. Karl//Dale Kleppinger. Gordon Lewis Jones. Keith/Blair Manuel. Dewey Revette. Adam//Weise. Stephen Ray Curtis”, Spahr writes, and “Donald Vidrine,/Curt Kuchta, Jimmy Wayne Harrell”. The worker’s names travel along the lines. The lines and stanzas break mid-name, so that one name appears on two lines or even in two stanzas.

13.11. Why do these lines feel so different to many of the other lines in the poem? Here we move from line to line in a way that does not force ‘restarting’ (because names are normally capitalized wherever they occur) and where the breaks are not ‘awkward’, there is no ‘kick’, because breaks between first and last names do not really break grammar. The names continue across the line breaks with the capitals providing regularity and the names themselves across their two or three parts providing a sense of completeness. There is ease here, the kind of ease that aesthetic beauty often feels like. Sometimes, with students, I hear this kind of ease referred to as “flow”.

13.12. In this moment of ease, prosodic beauty coincides with another kind of beauty, one I think Spahr’s poems are often interested in—a beauty that arises by insistence on the dignity of living things, including people, and on the preciousness of the world.

13.13. “Dynamic Positioning” enacts this beauty by its refusal of ease in reading throughout the rest of the poem. It is the way Spahr makes her lines ‘kick’ elsewhere that permits these lines, finally, to ‘flow.’ What flows here is not oil—that nominally precious fluid, on the basis of which wars are fought and national borders are established—but these names of the most expendable among us, those people who “then died” for “Our oil”.

14.1. Finally, I want to talk about Layli Long Soldier's poem “38”, which appears in Whereas, published by Graywolf Press (2017). This is a poem that I have benefitted from spending days and days talking about with students, and with undergraduates at several institutions in particular. So thank you again to my students for helping me think about this. Any shortcomings in the following very brief consideration are mine.

14.2. “38” is an incredibly intricate poem. And it is a poem thinks carefully about the line. It does this in part by, for most of the poem, dealing with and making its reader consider “the sentence”. Throughout “38” there is a doubling of meanings, so in this case “sentence” refers both to the legal sentencing-to-death of Dakota men in 1862 by then-President Abraham Lincoln, and to the grammatical construction, in English in this case, that is the container of a complete thought (subject, verb). In fact, at the very start of the poem, Long Soldier writes that “Here, the sentence will be respected”.

14.5. This first line touches off the doubleness by which the entire poem will proceed. Two of its six words can be read doubly: “here” and “sentence.”

14.6. Here where? Here on the page, here between the reader and the poem? Inside of this grammatical statement, between its capital letter and its end-stopping punctuation mark? Here in history? Here in Mni Sota/in Minnesota? And which sentence—the grammatical form of the complete thought, or the sentence to death by hanging of 38 Dakota men on 26 December 1862, on the order of President Abraham Lincoln?

14.7. It matters to the poem’s meanings that we can't decide on one reading and settle there—we have to hold grammar and law, poem and (non)pastness together.

15.1. Toward the start of the poem, Long Soldier writes that she “[does] not regard this as a poem of great imagination” and that she “[does] not consider this a ‘creative piece.’”

15.2. If the line—the making of the line—is one place where poets express their creativity and “great imagination,” then Long Soldier's adoption of a line that resembles—or, in fact, is equivalent to—the sentence can be read as a refusal of “great imagination.”
15.3. The “straightforwardness” of Long Soldier's lines, though formally different to the straightforwardness of Spahr’s, like Spahr’s, partially creates a steadiness of tone. However, unlike Spahr, Long Soldier uses the sentence form as the determinant of her line forms for the most part. For nearly the entire poem, the line is as long as the sentence. Sometimes the sentence is shorter than the width of the page; sometimes it is longer, and then the line continues as sentences do, which is to say it doubles back, returns to the left margin, and proceeds. Sometimes this happens multiple times—a “switchback” motion—as above.

15.4. Long Soldier’s lines in “38” do not use the poetic convention of the hanging indent. When we reach the right margin, a continuing line goes to the next line just as it would in prose. These lines functionally, formally, respect the sentence.

16.1. At one point (on page 51), Long Soldier writes that a sentence she has just written is “circular, akin to so many aspects of history.” This is a moment in the poem where language “click[s] the gears of the poem into place” (53). 

16.2. The circle is a very different shape to the line. One goes out or goes between; the other is the shape of return. It is also the shape of holding, or of incarceration. The circle is an image of “38”’s theory of history, which is not a line from then to now, but a continuous within-ness and revisitation. The circle is the shape of memorials, including the ride undertaken by the Dakota 38+2 riders each winter since 2008. However, the circle is also an image of confinement: it recalls the concentration camps at Fort Snelling where Dakota people were held by US forces. More banally, it is an image of habit: where we usually go, how we usually find ourselves. Thinking back to the “great imagination” earlier in the poem, the circle is an image of the spotlight: fame, attention, a platform; it is an image of the literary coterie, and, though I often think of the canon as a line, the circle is another way to see it.

16.3. One of the “circular” moments in “38” is when Long Soldier recounts the death of Andrew Myrick, a notoriously cruel settler shopkeeper, who “is famous for his refusal to provide credit to Dakota people by saying, ‘If they are hungry, let them eat grass’” (53). 

16.4. Long Soldier’s recounting of the way Myrick’s body was found—an act she is “inclined to call [...] a poem” (53)—is the first place in the poem where the line, not the sentence is “respected,” i.e. where the visual form of the poem obeys a logic other than that of grammar.

16.5. The last point in “38” at which “the sentence [is] respected” is the fifth line from the end of the poem, a line  (and a sentence) that reads, “Sometimes, when in a circle, if I wish to exit, I must leap” (53).

16.6. This line-sentence is both complete (grammatically, because of the period after ‘leap’ and the capital A of ‘And’, it is necessarily read as a full sentence) and incomplete (its conceptual sense continues in the next line, which could also be read as a coordinating clause).

16.7. The movement between the completeness/incompleteness of “Sometimes, when in a circle, if I wish to exit, I must leap” and “And let the body                    swing” is enacted in part by the ‘And’, which ‘disrespects’ the “rules of writing” (49) by beginning with a conjunction, and ‘disrespects’ the sentence by forcing it into the doubleness of complete/incomplete. The long horizontal space, the second in the poem but not the last, also ‘disrespects’ the sentence, or, anyway, it stuffs something—white space, time, motion, a leap, an act—into its ‘mouth’. 

16.8 All through Long Soldier’s poem, the doubling at stake has been the immovable and the mobile, the law and the line, the past and the present, the sentence and the sentence. The lines leap now, move now, act now. And then I see that all the norms of the sentence, all its rules and conventions, like the rules and conventions of law and of history, are not givens but actions. That “what the sentence does” is no more necessary than what a nation does; that the sentence is no less complexly part of the history of settlement and colonialization than the sentence; that the same goes for the line. And that “when in a circle, if I wish to exit, I must leap”. 

16.9. I am inclined to call this act by Layli Long Soldier a poem. For the length of the fourth-to-last line (“And let the body                   swing”), we are in suspension. Swinging, too.
16.10. The line holds both the living body that “leaps” and the dead one that “swings.” The line, too, “leaps” and “swings.” 

16.11. “Things are circling back again”, Long Soldier writes (53). This is a poem about law—death sentences, treaties—and about language (English, Lakota; poetry, grammar, the line, the sentence). It is also a poem about what counts as an inscription—a memorial, something that can “help focus our memory on particular people or events” (52). It is a poem in which the sentence that is, finally, respected—honored, I mean, rather than obeyed—is not written in granite or in calligrapher’s ink on parchment, but on the air and on the backs of horses ridden through subzero temperatures.

16.12. At the end of the orderly movement of “38”’s sentences, it is the movement of the body in space that can be read as a poem on the page, and the “act by the Dakota warriors” with its “irony” and “the words, ‘Let them eat grass’” (53) that is “a poem”. Language “clicks the gears of the poem into place” (53). But the poem, like the memorial, is an act: it is not language alone.

17.1. To make a line is an act.

17.2. In the very last lines of the poem, Long Soldier’s language moves from the platform—which we have to read as a gallows, but we might also read, given her subtle doublings all through the poem, and given the speaker’s own thinking about poetry, creative writing, and literature, as the lectern or the podium, the place in the spotlight, the single body of the capital-P poet, the social media presence, the place where we stand alone and speak—to someplace else. To where?

17.3. “Out
                                                                  to the grasses”  

17.4. Out                  to where we may find ourselves in relation, among those other living vertical lines.

Thank you for being here.

Éireann Lorsung makes pictures, texts, and objects, and loves to spend time thinking about literature and art in the company of others, especially students. A National Endowment for the Arts Fellow, she currently teaches at University College Dublin. Her most recent collection is The Century (Milkweed, 2020).