Calamities by Renee Gladman

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Words were never not things. But by the mid-20th century, under Eliot’s dizzying influence, it was hard not to look at language purely as a signifier for something loftier, as if letterforms themselves were immaterial. William Carlos Williams, a grounding force within the American literary scene, sought to remind readers that words exist in the real world and vice versa; once anything is put on paper, or even before, it possesses shape and color and weight. Speaking with Walter Sutton, he likened the page to a canvas, expressing his desire to “fuse poetry and painting, to make it the same thing.”

Almost a century later, Renee Gladman has achieved a fusion of her own making, in a style all her own. Explaining that “writing and drawing [are] identical gestures made with the hand,” Gladman’s latest book Calamities is a series of essays (or are they prose poems? or short stories? or black-and-white sketches?) that blur the boundaries between the verbal and visual arts. If Williams invokes painting as his guiding metaphor, Gladman is more interested in spatial relationships—or, as she describes in an interview with Bomb, this idea of “moving through the sentence (as writer or reader) as moving through a kind of terrain.” Here she is, measuring the distance between author and silence:

I sat in front of it and felt distinctly without conflict that we were separate: I was a body and it was an object, albeit the most thin I’d ever seen and the most cavernous. I was a body and it was a page and we both had our proverbial blankness.

By not revealing at first what “it” refers to, Gladman invites us to fill in the blank using our own imagination. What materializes is, satisfyingly enough, a blank page.

Throughout Calamities, Gladman subverts traditional ars poetica: she describes her process of not writing—or at least her Sisyphean attempts. “I was writing down the idea ‘I no longer wish to write’ by writing down that I was writing it down.” If her sentences occasionally feel claustrophobic, it’s all the more exhilarating when her prose opens out into the world. Listen to how she juxtaposes language and landscape, the figurative and the literal:

I began northeasterly with pieces of paper on which I’d scribbled the words draw and bird and call someone, and carried those pieces to sites I thought of as “church,” “bus station,” and “art gallery,” leaving each piece in some kind of correspondence. I laid draw within “church” and pulled out my recorder. I hid bird behind a trash barrel at the “bus station” then got on a bus.

Just as CAConrad’s (SOMA)TICS proves that poetry exercises can also function as poems, Calamities suggests that performance art remains art after it’s transcribed.

Readers of Gladman’s earlier work, which includes novels, a novella, and a poetry collection, will appreciate that her latest book references similar themes and sometimes even the other books explicitly. Calamities, however, succeeds as a standalone masterpiece; you could be unfamiliar with what she’s produced in the past and have no trouble stepping into this work cold. Each essay, except for the last section, starts with “I began the day…” and, like each new day, unfolds with an unpredictable series of encounters and digressions, from city wanderings to faculty meetings. (One way to move through this book would be to read a new essay each morning, though it might be hard resisting the urge to binge. Calamities begs to be consumed in one sitting.)

I’m compelled at this point to say: this book isn’t for everyone. There’s no clear plot to speak of, and the prose lacks fluidity by design. Gladman traces the origins of her writing style: “I’d learned that to think in this language you had to be patient: you had to say one part, like drawing one side of a cube, then say the next part, like drawing another side.” Reading Gladman, I sometimes feel I’m watching a mastermind manipulate a Rubik’s Cube, except the goal isn’t to solve it but to present every possible arrangement. As she remarks in that same interview, “Most of the fun is in the asking rather than the answering.”

Perhaps Calamities is most winning in its politics—not because of how it frames certain issues, but how it reinvents the frame entirely. Gladman writes,

We were in a time where the body was important to a lot of people, and it was important to me… I hoped to reach a point in speaking where when it was time to say ‘body’ I could go silent instead.

With these two sentences, she gestures toward some of the most pressing topics in today’s civil discourse—body-and-gender, body-and-race—but never explicitly mentions them. While others like Maggie Nelson and Claudia Rankine take on these matters in more defined terms, Gladman offers an open-ended—but no less affecting—commentary. Or am I seeing what’s not there? Am I imposing on Gladman, a black lesbian writer, my own expectations for a kind of political message? Every reader, she notes, faces this question: “[Do] I go into this book and try to figure out what it [is] saying or [do] I project onto it what I [want] it to say?”

Gladman’s essays tell “the story of the body in thought.” They are highly deliberative, euphorically discursive. So what are the “calamities” she’s referencing? Not surprisingly, she explains without really explaining:

I wrote a calamity. I wrote another calamity. Sometimes they made me sad because I thought when I finished them I would be done with writing. I thought I am writing myself out of writing by writing… I was losing writing because I had suddenly begun saying what I needed to say, but it was because of drawing that this was happening.

What is a calamity? For a writer, it can be an event that forces you to speak. There is a limited amount of material that every writer stores inside, Gladman implies, and so writing is also a form of loss, of depleting one’s resources. But it’s not a reason to despair. There are limitless words to be written, limitless lines to draw one in.

Ben Purkert is the author of For the Love of Endings (Four Way Books, 2018). His poems appear or are forthcoming in the New Yorker, Poetry, Kenyon Review, and elsewhere. An editor at Guernica, he is the founder of Back Draft, an interview series focused on poetry and revision. He currently teaches creative writing at Rutgers. More from this author →