How—dashing—




so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost…

I shan’t have lied. It’s evident
…though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.

—from Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art”



I feel Bishop’s “One Art” more acutely, or rather, more habitually, than most. Losing isn’t hard to master: it comes for us all as the gradual receding of memory and erasures of age, some losses coring us more bluntly than others. But things do disappear, for me, and I have to go through the bureaucracy of retrieving them. This process is laborious, embodied and codified in memorized sequences of movements, words on trees, flagging touchstones for neural pathways back. Bishop’s lost-and-found is filled with the clutter of items; I lose ideas, words, names, phrases, things I need to remember and should know (recipes are baked into my memory, song lyrics scored into my brain, but philosophy? The pronunciation of archipelago, diaspora, açai? Poof.) I know she feels it, too: the final stanza bears the marks of the hunt: “—Even losing you… may look like (Write it!) like disaster.” The merciful em dash—aside, parenthetical, surfeit—chides the you for their loss and coaches the I, providing the means to get through, to get to the final thought. It’s a villanelle, a mnemonic form, repeating its refrains when the I’s at a loss for words. (Write it!) It’s only disaster.

Sometimes—oftentimes—I need these breaks, asides. They interrupt the sentence’s monolith and restructure its hierarchies; to borrow and amend Suzan-Lori Parks’s charting of “rep and rev” (repetition and revision, which Parks uses to reimagine dialectical progression as cyclical and self-revising, favoring accrual and variation, as demonstrated through jazz), instead of A➔B, its structure moves more like A➔ a➔ A➔ xA➔ xa➔ xb➔ Aaa➔ B. Progress doesn’t happen in linear fashion, but laterally, branching out and around and back. I understand that this isn’t clear: let me explain.

When I write (and I write as I think), the corpus of text is strung together with rickety, tangential half-thoughts, shooting off in directions that are not clear and concise and focused. A kind mentor instructs me (as he was instructed by his own kind mentors) to subordinate not proliferate. This is like telling a fish to julienne not cube. I can. But it takes all of my energies and all of the energy out of my writing. The horse jumped over the fucking fence.

It isn’t hard to, master. Meanwhile, “Places, names, where you meant” just vanish into the fog.


Multiple sclerosis interrupts otherwise
healthy neurons, scrubbing away
the myelin that covers nerves and nerve
endings like rubber over live
wires. The body attacks
itself, having received bad
information that healthy cells are intruders,
a costly mistranslation. This leaves the nerve raw,
which the body then plasters with scar
tissue to “heal” it. Sometimes the body can repair
its own damage, but more often, the lesion
is revisited—more attacks, more increasingly
shoddy thick layers of repair—until the
nerve signal is slowed or ultimately
stopped. Writing my body then
means layering revisions, synonyms, tangential
memories thoughts words until the topic is
covered. It’s not pretty, but it mostly
gets the job
done. 


When I’m in a “brain fog,” it’s more like being underwater (condensed fog). I can’t remember
a word or a name
Even one I know I know

e.g.,

I passed out once, lost consciousness and felled a desk on the way down dun

When I awoke, I knew my name but no
others. Medics and coworkers pressed me
hurriedly, worriedly. I did not know
who’s president, where
are we I smiled
and wanted to
help but just did not
know

.

. .

that all came back after a few hours. Fog
happens frequently and less dramatically: mostly
it’s frustrating, pervasive as smoke
unthinkable, choking
out thought

but I’ve devised improvised work-arounds, trails of breadcrumbed thoughts
to find my way back to what I know I know
my vanished possessions

and I can get them back.

For instance, I could not remember a word
sew remembered the last time I experienced it
the street, the weather, the sun, the friend
the man the friend wanted

a carousel of memories, all to arrive
at falafel—not a foreign or specialized term, but just outside rote
use and so temporarily displaced. This happens with such frequency

that I have memorized work-arounds to jog my sleepy memory, mnemonic paths to lap and loop
dormant dead-ends back into active thought. My doctor, last name Mitchell, I remember as
Robert Mitchum, revise back to Brian. Mitchelle, my belle. Clay Conrad Aiken’s Jig of Foreskin
Forslin. Thank god for meter and rhyme in poetry, mnemonic tonics.

Em dashes—and the asides they contain—are the typographical equivalents, the
grammatical flagbears of broken and patches
together circuitry of thought

constantly flagged by others—editors, professors, kind friends reading
my writing—as too mannered, to jittery these dashes
to articulate my thoughts in a way that makes sense
in my own mind. I think I think
like this

footnotes of additions, spliced parentheticals, em dashes wedged into the real, primary thoughts
a briar a’tangle, neurons atingle
and redirected

Crops of em dashes, hinted at (so sparingly, such restraint!) in Bishop proliferate in other writers—female poets, especially. This is nearly always treated as a tic, an oddity (phone says isotope), a quirk of handwriting (see).[1]Dickinson obviously, the Baroness, Mina Loy. It’s their handwriting! They meant a full stop? They were just dashing off lines in between chores of the domusphere™ Min Kang.

Contemporary fiction writer Laura van den Berg tweeted in 2019: “In the past year I fallen, after years of resistance, into headlong love with the em dash. I love the way it can create the feeling of a fractured/incomplete/interrupted line or thought.” Welcome, hope you like what we’ve done with the place.

Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) photographs the brain
with radio waves on a magnetic field. I get headshots done semi-annually
sometimes bareback (no metal, supine in the machine) and sometimes
with contrast dye injected into my bloodstream
to more dramatically illuminate disease
activity areas. These are imaged in slices,
lesions dotting the photos like liquid paper
layered on mistakes

Can I just interject—
(a bit of historical precedence to spiff
the place up)

Astrid Seme, the remarkably named scholar on the typography (particularly the em dashes) of the avant-garde artist and writer the Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven, writes of the flourish’s active resistance as an occupation of the space of the page:

The em dash is flexible, working as an appropriation of silence, as acting dissonance, as interruption, as occupying space. The em dash is forceful, able to stamp silence loudly into a page; and when spoken, these punctuation marks seem to function more like performers between words, creating movement and voice within text.

Seme holds up the em dash as a feminist gesture, a refusal to sit meekly, ankles crossed, while the sentence speaks. Instead, it interrupts and allows the space for the sentence to think and gather its thoughts. This happens orally in conversation; men (in my experience) wield this much more liberally: keep talking ‘til you get to the point. Anyone else, say what you mean quickly then hand back the mic. In writing, the em dash marks this resistance—no, this insistence—on keeping the mic and working through ideas in a non-hierarchical, synthetic, combustible fashion.

It is impossible to say just what I mean! Prufrock circles back on himself
-negating and second-guessing
But we understand that this is him saying what he means, that is: his inability
to communicate in linear, straightforward fashion

*applause*

Em lashes her poem into shape. For
fluidity. Momentum.
For a priori- and sani-
tized clarity. Smooth it
over, move it. Sub-
ordinary ate it.
Balance readers’
expectations and
tell it to me
straight.

Sometimes a girl needs an Em
dash. The Baroness, like Dickinson,
uses the em dash a lot, often as a full stop (like a period) spotting
the text or as a flourish of emphasis like an exclamation point. Seme’s
book on this subject, Baroness Elsa’s Em Dashes, unpacks her myriad applications: “breathless” but also taking a breath, proto-punk, ambiguous, horizontal, insistent.

Also: ornament.
Also: repetition. See also:
Style

In contemporary citations of a bibliography, when multiple books by the same author are listed,

— — —

indicates that author repeats but the title changes. Though style guides were not codified into published collections of rules until the 1920’s, editors of course employed rules of proofreading for manuscripts, what would eventually become what we know as rules of style. They used proofreader’s marks and (thanks to an increasingly secular, literate audience) practiced textual criticism, clearing the way for bibliographies as we now know them. The em dash, ever the suture, knitted together what’s not there in the text with what is. Very generally speaking, in prose, three dashes indicate a missing word (What the — — —); two indicate missing letters in a word (What the f— —). Mina Loy uses dashes like this [2] in her “Songs to Joannes,” e.g., Song XXXIV:

Love— — — the preeminent litterateur.

or XXVI

We sidle up
To Nature
— — — that irate pornagraphist

and XXVIII

Unthinkable     that white over there
— — — Is smoke from your house


Loy uses multiple em dashes in varying ways, but her groupings of three em dashes seem to serve as an acknowledgment of what’s missing and an emphasis of a silent repetition, a chant of what came before/above. “Love, Love, the litterateur” loops the Songs back to the start of the playlist, with Pig Cupid rooting erotic garbage (love litter à garbage erotica, ouroborous text).

To Nature, Nature, that irate pornographist

Unthinkable, Unthinkable is smoke

Loy decorates her page with em dashes, stringing four, seven, or ten together to serve as section breaks or breadths or breaths, beats between what she’s just said and what she’s about to say. Their length generally seems to mirror the preceding line’s length, as in

XIII

Where two or three are welded together
They shall become god
— — —— — ——
Oh that’s right
Keep away from me    Please give me a push

In the font used in the 1917 issue of Others where the complete Songs debuted is such that the text, “They shall become god,” and the seven em dashes that follow match visually, length-wise. But it’s hard not to read the dashes as more than purely ornamental, even when they mirror line lengths, because Loy doesn’t plop them on the page and leave them uninterrogated. In the example above, for instance, the text of the poem seems to respond to the impediment the em dashes set upon the poem itself: where two or three (or seven) are welded together, they shall become god, divinely creating structure, setting up impediments, conjoining disparate parts, creating and engendering meaning, requiring interpretation. The speaker’s immediate commentary after the fence of em dashes speaks directly to them or to whoever constructed their barrier (the you? The speaker herself?): Keep away from me. No you’s allowed.

This same section (XIII) deploys more familiar, discrete em dashes in the space of a single line of text to collapse the poem’s I with its you, tumbled together in a cosmic agitator:

Depersonalized
Identical
Into the terrific Nirvana
Me you—you—me

Meyou you me
essentially
but also held separate
even as they’re “identical”
and “depersonalized”

The em dash holds them in this state of suspension—they don’t have to mix; they can stay discrete—unto themselves—surfacing at appointed intervals, as in (XXVII):

            Flowed to the approachment of — — — —
            NOTHING

Whereas the Baroness scores her text with staccato dashes, Loy uses hers to hold her text, her reader, her you, at bay. Delay, remove, refusal—at arm’s length. Even getting close to these poems and tumbling together is to be held aloof. The em dash accommodates this isolatory if unorthodox application.

But also: Loy was a seamstress, see: an artist, a fashion designer, a milliner. Loy scholar Susan Rosenbaum has noted that Loy’s dashes look like stitches—and they do—and this canny observation underscores that style must figure in any discussion of Loy’s affect. The dashes hold the piece together; pull one thread and the whole thing unravels (seriously, let be be finale of seam).

This frequency’s interrupted, corrupted. Patch it in. What we need is a clear signal (and we know that there’s no such, noise undergirds every signal every signal. *@#$%!) Repeat, over.          

My tongue is in my cheek (where’s everyone else’s? tooth bed) but I mean this earnestly: the world won’t stay stable, and I have to retrieve it. It’s [an] art, letting things go, and another (tandem) dragging them back.

In her 1914 “Feminist Manifesto,” Loy calls for a rupture in tradition as the only means for change:

Women if you want to realise yourselves—you are on the eve of a devastating psychological upheaval—all your pet illusions must be unmasked—the lies of centuries have got to go—are you prepared for the Wrench—?

One hundred years later, this psychological crisis still heaves. The em dash slices and sutures the page, adding darts to shape and accommodate non-linear discourse and more bodies. And sew—stop apologizing for filling the page space ful stop abridging your thoughts stop reducing and trimming and squeezing into the manicured sentence stop stopping fool stop

loop-de-loop and pull off
cyclical = progress
cinching things we carry
shed or should, as you please. Please—

Dash away your thoughts
liberally and liberatory, to
interrupt the able [-bodied] text

: it is impossible! And not too hard to master




 
Notes

[1] More recent Dickinson scholarship takes her dashes seriously; see: Susan Cameron’s Choosing Not Choosing in particular explores the negative capability/ambiguity harnessed by Dickinson’s em dash, reading the materiality of her facsicles as proof of her [in]difference.

[2] See also: “Letters to the Unliving,” “Moreover, the Moon— — —”; “‘The Starry Sky’ of Wydham Lewis”; etc.


References and Recommended Reading

Aiken, Conrad. The Jig of Forslin. Boston, The Four Seas Company, 1916.

Bishop, Elizabeth. “One Art.” The Complete Poems 1926-1979. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1983.

Dickinson, Emily.The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson, edited by Thomas H. Johnson. Back Bay Books, 1976.

Eliot, T. S. “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” Prufrock and Other Observations. London, The Egoist Ltd., 1917, pp. 9-16.

Kang, Min. Diary of a K-Drama Villain. Coconut Books, 2015.

@lvandenberg. “In the past year I fallen, after years of resistance, into headlong love with the em dash. I love the way it can create the feeling of a fractured/incomplete/interrupted line or thought.” 19 January 2019.  https://twitter.com/lvandenberg/status/1085294332045860864

Loy, Mina. “The Feminist Manifesto.” The Lost Lunar Baedeker. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1996, pp. 153-56.

— — —. “Songs to Joannes.” The Lost Lunar Baedeker. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1996, pp. 53-68.

Parks, Suzan-Lori. “From Elements of Style.” The America Play and Other Works, New York, Theatre Communications Group, 1995, pp.6-18.

Seme, Astrid. Baroness Elsa’s Em Dashes. Berlin: Kunstverein Langenhagen and Mark Penzinger Books, 2019.

— — —. “The Em Dash Scarf.” Received by Jacqueline Kari, 16 February 2021.

Van den Berg, Laura. I Hold a Wolf by the Ears. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2020.

von Freytag-Loringhoven, Elsa. Body Sweats: The Uncensored Writings of Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven, edited by Irene Gammel and Suzanne Zelazo, MIT Press, 2016.



Jacqueline Kari is a poet completing her doctorate in creative writing at the University of Georgia. Her work has previously appeared in chapbooks (most recently: please | sure, Birds of Lace, 2019) and journals (The Georgia Review; Lana Turner; Action Yes and the Action Books Blog; The Chicago Review; and others). She is currently finishing her dissertation, A Creature Feminine, a creative-critical project on contemporary female poets' radical interventions in lyric subjectivity, and co-editing an anthology on women's writing between the wars with Jed Rasula.