Lyric Gesture


“Near them a tall man with thick chestnut hair held his left wrist as if it might be in pain. It was the intensity of his eyes that caught Kafka’s attention more than his tall leanness which, from the evidence about, marked the aeronaut and the mechanic. This was the age of the birdman and of the magician of the machine. Who knows but what one of these preoccupied faces might belong to Marinetti himself? This was a crane of a man. The very wilderness of his curly brown hair and the tension in his long fingers seemed to speak of man’s strange necessity to fly. He was talking to a short man in a mechanic’s blue smock and with an eye patch. From his mouth flew the words Kite Flying Upper Air Station, Höhere Luftstazion zum Drachensteigenlassen. Then the small man raised his square hands and cocked his head in a question. Glossop, was the answer, followed by the green word Derbyshire.


Otto squared his shoulders and approached a man who was obviously both an Italian and a reporter.

—Informazione, per favore, he said with a flamboyance Max and Franz had thought he used only upon the waiters of Prague. The reporter’s eyes grew round and bright.

—Per essempio?

—Chi è il aviatore colà, prego?

—È Ruggiero. Francese.

—Ask him, Franz said, if he knows who that tall man is with the deep eyes and chestnut hair.—E quest’uomo di occhi penetrante e capigliatura riccia?

The reporter did not know. [...]

Otto gave the page to Franz.

—There’s the name of the man you asked about, he said. He wrote it down for the giornalista.

Kafka looked at the name. It read, in light pencil, the kind meticulous men used to jot down fractions and the abbreviated titles of learned journals, volume, number, and page, probably a thin sliver pencil with fine lead, Ludwig Wittgenstenstein.

—Who? Max said.” [1]

The forgoing excerpt is from Guy Davenport’s The Aeroplanes at Brescia first collected in his book of short fiction, Tatlin!, then later selected as part of his Twelve Stories. The story gives us Franz Kafka witnessing an historic air show in the Italian town of Brescia with his friends, the brothers Max and Otto Brod. This momentous occasion in the history of aviation was the first international competition for airplanes, bannered a number of pioneers, among them Louis Bleriot, famous for making the first flight across the English Channel, Glenn Curtiss, and Henri Rougier. And Davenport makes it fictively wondrous as well, engineering an unknowing meeting between Franz Kafka and Ludwig Wittgenstein, way before we referred to a particular mode of phantasmagoric fiction as Kafkaesque, and before we described the language games, the tautological utterances of analytic philosophy as Wittgensteinian. The story ends with a scene between Max Brod and Franz Kafka:

“—Franz! Max said before he considered what he was saying, why are there tears in your eyes?—I don’t know, Kafka said. I don’t know.”

Franz Kafka, of course, will eventually be recognized as a major figure in modern literature; and Max Brod, Kafka’s friend and biographer, and also a considerably prolific author in his own right, will be regarded more widely as the literary executor who ignored Kafka’s instructions to burn his works after his death.

But more than the wonderful meeting of proper names in what is an inarguably important event, what continues to draw me to this story is how intricately it is able to unfold a particular fascination, an inarticulability even, that happens when people encounter and understand that something significant is happening before them but cannot describe what that thing is yet. Davenport locates the proper names—Franz Kafka, Max Brod, Ludwig Wittgenstein—in that boundary space between the proper and the common name, that allows persons to share in the glow of an ineffable, a collective recognition of a not-understanding. And for Kafka, in this story set in Brescia, there were two events: the air show with the rowdiness of its crowds, the bustle of its mechanics, and the grace of its aviators but also the private event with this stranger who kept holding on “to his left wrist as if it might be in pain,” who had such intensity in his eyes:

“—I don’t know, Kafka said, I don’t know,” Guy Davenport writes. And with that sleight-of-hand, the person whose proper name is indeed Kafka, is before us (and also before Max), a teary-eyed Franz faced with the inarticulable.

“The Aeroplanes at Brescia” before it was the title of the Guy Davenport short story, was first the title of an editorial by Franz Kafka published in the Sept 29, 1909 issue of the Prague-based, German newspaper Bohemia. In 1909, Wittgenstein was in fact studying aeronautics at the University of Manchester with a research focus on the flying of kites. Twenty-five years later, in a journal entry, he would write, “I think I summed up my position vis-à-vis philosophy when I said: Philosophy should really be written only as one would write poetry.”

I find in Guy Davenport an aleatory notion of speculative meetings which creates the contingency of lives intersecting, even though improbably, even if only tangentially. This brings me to consider a particular manner of composition. I want to attempt, instead of exposition or narrative, composing poems through a series of gestures; to see what gestures can become if they do not become exposition, what they make of exposition; to see how facts, persons, and anecdotes can be shaped in the composition by replacing setting with the duration and space of prosody and the page; to see how bringing people into the page’s field of attention allows for accident and chance. At the risk of saying something over-determined, it is gesture that allows for the person in the poem to activate contingency. And perhaps the I and its other, the we and their articulations, are themselves gestures—in the sense that is close to Giorgio Agamben’s description of gesture as a “communication of a communicability,” a “being-in-language”—as a “gesture of not being able to figure something out in language.” [2] I use ‘gesture’ here less to mean something like a surface action, but more to mean the involuntary, what is still within but exceeds intention—only to be indicated through gesture itself.

Gestures can be empty in the realm of thought and also in the sphere of action. When gesture is read as pure mediality in thought, it is both means and end. When gesture ceases to open up possibility, it is stuck in something like an ineffectual and purely tautological postmodernist play on difference. In the empty political gesture, when gesture is a matter of appearances, it is precisely because it appears to but does not actually achieve the good which it purports to accomplish. “Politics is the sphere of pure means, that is, of the absolute and complete gesturality of human beings,” writes Agamben, in recognition of its dialectic potential.

I think it is the gestural that enlivens form, that allows form to respond to the present, which keeps the openness of form and prevents it from becoming codified as mannerism. I seek a composition that produces gestures, in which mediality is not gesture’s absolute end, but as a method such that mediality can remain as just that—means as means—in unfolding, patient, inexhaustible approximations.

I find these examples in how one artist’s practice corresponds to the events of their life, bounces off, echoes the practice and life of another. Inexhaustible reverberations, finite aspects of which I hope to recirculate in poems. Take for example, Agnes Martin’s idea of joy or Guy Debord’s Situationist instructions for a dèrive; the various spaces for friendships as produced in the collage practice of Kurt Schwitters, and in the performance work of On Kawara; the virtual site where labor and dream intersect in the anarchitectural work of Gordon Matta-Clark, and the unconventionally scored music of Toru Takemitsu.

“Construction,” Walter Benjamin quotes Siegfried Giedon in Convolute K of the Arcades Project, “plays the role of the subconscious.” Bright moments between an instant and attention. We seek immediacy by hewing as close as possible to design. Gesture means defective products haphazardly, daily, slipping past, forever, from our fingers. But gesture is a dream, and dailiness the sheen about our dream objects, about our longue duree.”

“The title of my work,” Toru Takemitsu says, talking about his orchestral composition “A Flock Descends into a Pentagonal Garden,” in a lecture delivered before an audience in Tokyo’s Studio 200 in 1984, “is based on a strange dream.” He continues:

The same spring in which I received a commission from the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra, there was a large retrospective show of works by Marcel Duchamp at the Centre Pompidou in Paris. I feel my dream was influenced by a portrait of Duchamp by Man Ray included in that exhibit. The photograph shows Duchamp’s head with a star shape shaved on its own.

The night after seeing that photo I dreamt of a pentagonal garden. Flying down and into the garden were countless white birds led by a single black bird. I rarely dream; perhaps that is why the impression left was so strong. When I awoke, that landscape felt very musical, and I wanted to turn it into a composition. For a long time afterward I relived the dream, making precise notes of the memories it evoked. The title somehow emerged: A Flock Descends into the Pentagonal Garden. [3]

I take from Takemitsu a possible manner of incorporating dream material in the work. The dream material folded, unfolded, re- folded, worked, while maintaining its dialectical quality, without forcing it to become meaning or content; in Takemitsu’s case, to “clarify musically through something as simple as numbers.” I think also about the generative potential of dreams. On the importance of dreams and the “figurative status of awakening” in Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project, the scholar and thinker Alexander Gelley writes: “In transposing the Freudian dream work from the individual subject to the collective, Benjamin projected a ‘macrocosmic journey’ of the individual sleeper to the ‘dreaming collective, which through the arcades, communes with its own insides.’” [4]

Work and dream, in the lyric imagination, is the palpable atmosphere of prosody. Prosody as gesture, as both the inescapable in speech, is the configurable material in poems. And in what ways can gesture, dream content, the lyric intersection of lives make possible an imagining that is the opposite of a formless phantasmagoria?

There is a beautiful scene in Theo Angelopolous’s Eternity and a Day where Alexander, the terminally ill protagonist, plays music from his room. The phonograph music spills out into the neighborhood space by way of his balcony. He plays the same music each day, and every time he does, his neighbor from the second floor room, in a building across his, responds to him by playing the exact same music back. I want to end with this scene before I read some of my poems—because it has music, and something like a tenuous but thoroughly sincere connection between two persons made possible by music, between Alexander and the neighbor whom he does not personally know.

“For the last few months,” Alexander tells us, “My only contact with the world has been this unknown neighbor of mine, who always answers to me with the same music. Who are they? What are they like? One morning I want to go and meet them, but then I changed my mind. Maybe it’s better not to meet them and imagine them. Will it be a hermit like me? Or perhaps a little girl, who before leaving for school, plays with the unknown neighbor.” [5]


[1] Davenport, Guy. Twelve Stories. Berkeley, CA: Counterpoint, 1997.

[2] Agamben, Giorgio. Means Without End: Notes on Politics. Trans. Vincenzo Binnetti and Cesare Casarino. Minneapolis, MN: Univ of Minessota Press, 2000.

[3] Gelley, Alexander. Benjamin’s Passages: Dreaming, Awakening. New York, N.Y.: Fordham University Press, 2014.

[4] Takemitsu, Toru. Confronting Silence: Selected Writings. Eds. Yoshiko Kakudo and Glenn Glasow. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 1995.

[5] Eternity and a Day. Dir. Theo Anelopoulos. Paradis Films, 1998.

Raymond de Borja is the author  of they day daze (HighChair, 2012), as well, in our estrangement (Aklat Ulagad, 2023), and facture (Broken Sleep, 2024). His recent work can be found in The White Review, Omniverse, Cambridge Literary Review, Black Sun Lit, Jacket2, and elsewhere.