Language as Possibility: Renee Gladman’s Plans for Sentences

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If you look at any scripted sentence, especially written in cursive, without any concern for reading or meaning, what do you see? Something like looping lines scrawled on the page, strange glyphs making little drawings and patterns. There is a kind of open mindedness involved in this activity, a willingness to try to see what you normally read. Also a willingness to not know the difference. When I adopt this approach it’s hard to describe the kind of enjoyment I get out of Renee Gladman’s poem drawings or prose architectures.

I first encountered Renee Gladman’s work when she came to speak at my university. It was a strange meeting for a couple reasons. My professor John Beer, a great poet in his own right, relayed to me that he first met Gladman at St. Bonaventure University in New York where he worked with Robert Lax. My uncle Bill taught chemistry there for several years before retiring to my home state of North Carolina. It was an innocuous synchronicity, but enough for me to take as a sign that I needed to attend Gladman’s reading. When Gladman zoomed into the reading, I was struck by the combination of wonder and humility in her voice. She spoke slowly, with a sense that she wasn’t exactly sure where the words were coming from but that they were very real, felt, immanent—the same impression I get when I behold her work. She began reading from her novel Ana Patova Crosses a Bridge. Admittedly, being uninitiated to her style, I had no idea what was going on, which is the best place to be for a poet.

For those unfamiliar, it helps to think of Gladman’s work as engaging the imagination the way an architect approaches three-dimensional space with a two-dimensional blueprint. Her art is all about blurring or renegotiating where we draw the line—between writing and drawing, seeing and reading, between knowing and not-knowing, and, by extension, between social constructs. Through the poem-drawings in her newest collection from Wave Books, Plans for Sentences, this latest installment follows up the 2016 book of drawn-writings Prose Architectures as Gladman continues “using the space and time of drawing to explore more deeply the impact of blackness, futurity, and moving/erupting architectures on topographies of the sentence.”

These will set something at the back of something and make it larger; what is smallest

will be at the forefront but also below. These will bend, will contort. They will grain


These sentences will dome the thought; they will make complex gestures and grain on a

curve. They will set memories in overlapping modes of slope and cover, making hollows. (FIG 12. p. 25)

Intricate, yet understated, the poems embody a kind of opacity between specific and vague— buildings, “domes of thought,” “propositions of houses,” compositions that “scaffold the unwritten.” However, the supposed impasse between ‘the specific’ and ‘the vague’ becomes overgrown by all ‘their’ (the sentences) self-allusion. In this way, the book is, referentially, a closed loop, as it recursively gestures to its own structure. Yet, despite the recursive (pun intended) looping, these sentences also endlessly open and bloom and “dream themselves into figuration[s] of planets and satellites.” The very core of language as structural possibility, lends animacy to the things being enacted, so that

one thing leaning and the other sloping will divide the plain just below the densest language and will launch the language of the grain.

The topography of the terrain insinuated through the poem-drawings use this “dense language of the grain” to build and rebuild what might be called various ‘architextual’ structures. “Silos” and “spires” lean and loom. “Sanctuaries” “seamed” in clausal “corridors,” by and for “blackened gatherings.”  Take the poem accompanying Figure 23:

They will out quietly in a thin single line of fanning, they will turn, they will counter; they will turn and land and lift off and turn within the meditation, and will blacken gasps into the page

These places will inscribe their own topography: make their shape with their shape. And

will sonar inside the void

These sentences will wind tightly around who we are and how we live and will grow habitations as they wonder; they will cleave from the ground in enclosures of grief and will knoll

Thus, “they” (the sentences) will “blacken gasps onto the page” as the page becomes a space and a surface for “tiny communities,” a multifaceted “substrate” (a word seemingly standing in for “page” used several times throughout Plans for Sentences). A substrate is a surface material for electronic circuitry, or in biochemical terms, a material for enzymes in cell-matrices. In scientific terms, substrates are highly “context-dependent” (Wikipedia), much like the poems’ relation to the drawings. In terms of blackness and futurity, context remains contingent, fluctuating between “a blackening of the figure and a blackening of the ground.”

Legibility is equally context-dependent to the manner of inscription and transcription. Reading these poems is one way to approach the book of drawings. Each stanza lends myriad connotative shades to each meaning, structure, or action described (or inscribed) in the book. For instance, various “castellations” crop up throughout the book, a word defined by Merriam-Webster as “defensive or decorative parapets; battlements.” While ‘the thing being defended’ remains unspecified, the reader can insinuate socioeconomic inferences, where black gathering can stand for the marks on the page and the marked bodies subject to political structures throughout recent space and time.

Gladman’s work literally makes space for blackened gatherings through “geometr[ies] of support.” The significance of the future-subjunctive mood in these sentences not only makes space, but also plans for future spaces—hence the lack of periods at the end of each stanza and proliferation of semicolons, which signifies both separation and continuance, a closing-and-opening. Thus, for all these structures, there are no monoliths. There are plenty of places where ‘they’ “fail” or “void” or “buckle” or “ache;” they even become, colorfully, “a figuration of birds flying above a ground on fire, under fire.”

Readers familiar with Gladman’s work may find a pleasurable surprise in Plans—the increased incorporation of watercolor in several of the drawings. In Fig. 36, the drawings have crooked strokes of ochre and tiny dabs of turquoise. The poem tells us that the sentences “will name little waters that comma” and contain places that “let evening glow through them.” It seems the color gestures or loosely corresponds to certain elements conjured in the poem-drawings. Figures 47 through the end (60) all feature gray (fog), greens (moss, grass), ochre (evening glow). However, these gestures also, in no way, should be reduced to mere symbolism or illustration—a point of contingency Gladman notes in her Acknowledgements. Rather, the color seems to be strictly gestural, they are part of the sentence’s future-plans in the same way the directions, walls, shapes, and other architectural objects are integral to the plans.

Sometimes, looking at the drawings feels like looking at a scape (whether land or city). Then one reads something like: “these places will operate inside a thinning…they will up and over and grain.” We are left, however, only able to guess at the scale of the scape.

(Fig 33. Poetry Foundation,


Are we looking at miniscule close-ups, magnified to scale, or are these structures massive and faraway? Where are we? Who constitutes ‘we’? Are we spectators, tourists? One gets the sense of being a visitor and the visitation is facilitated by Gladman, but she isn’t so much a guide or host as a kind of purveyor. The visitation purveyed by the writing which is also the drawing, that we are somehow looking at and looking on and looking (with)in(side).

Oftentimes, prepositions are treated as verbal, so that “out” and “over” enact movement that simultaneously gestures and figures. Or prepositional phrases function nominally “these sentences will narrow in an out-and-through (Fig 43).” Plans for Sentences draws out and through and all throughout various plans and planes, sometimes plainly sometimes diaphanously. This method of re-tooling or re-building prepositions, situates the reader in a place where ‘figuring out’ what the poems mean, is really an activity of ‘figuring up’, literally drawing a conclusion based on how you use the sentences to configure or shape the meaning. I find my imagination acting like a cursor drawing in a computer program as I follow the ‘lines’ of words:

These sentences will funnel the plain in a bout of weather between the boundary and the

front; they will rotate above and grain below. They will over and back above, will grain and

blacken below. They will make an underground for your breathing, a repeating of devoted

enclosure (Fig. 29)

The sparseness of the “plain” language throughout ex-plains itself in the recursive looping-around and laying-out of words and drawing. Script is conscripted by drawing and re-scripted in each sentence so that the “poetry” occurs in the interstitial spaces between seeing and reading, visualizing and imagining. The writing/drawing involves planar existences and planning becomes a form of forming.

All this is to say, one of the beauties and joys of engaging this book is that there are multiple ways to engage. There is even a section at the end titled “Descriptions of Future Sentences, An Index,” if a reader wants to just browse intriguing and awe-some sentences. The index is broken into something like ‘stanzas’ based on typified beginning phrases throughout the book. For instance, “these places…”, “these sentences…”, “this chapter…” etc. The effect of this realignment of sentences is even more structural variation and possible figurative building.

Gladman’s art is literally figural and figuratively literal. Her renderings turn abstraction substantive as substance becomes abstract. In order to ‘follow’ the lines she’s following, it’s as if the reader must completely invert their own sense of how to make (create) sense. I cannot help but try to ‘read’ the drawings and ‘visualize’ the writing, rather than the other way around. However, the other way around can be just as compelling and constructive in creating an understanding of the ‘architextuality’ of the poems.

An incompleteness, or voided substance, fills and frames each drawing-poem. Each one feels both fixed and in-progress, simultaneously—much like black futurity, within which Renee Gladman’s vision is a beautiful part. Through a particular strain of defamiliarization, Gladman’s book reminds us that we don’t know, maybe can’t ever really know, what we are looking at. We can, however, adjust accordingly—either with or against the curve or the grain or the gathering, but there will always be escapement, void, the unfinished becoming of those sentences that will be.




Jay Butler is a poet and writer with degrees in History & Creative Writing from Appalachian State University and an MFA from Portland State University, where he was the recipient of an Academy of American Poets Award, as well as other awards and scholarships. Through ecopoetics as a creative and critical practice, he enjoys getting wrapped up in the sonic entanglements of language. Currently serving as co-editor in chief of Portland Review, his creative work has been featured in, Fourteen Hills, Appalachian Heritage, Pine Mountain Sand & Gravel, among other literary journals. More from this author →