WRI(GH)TE [ING] PUNCTUATION: READING LESLIE SCALAPINO
by Jordan Antonucci
by Jordan Antonucci
Scalapino’s The Dihedrons Gazelle-Dihedrals Zoom is remarkable in its physical and lyrical layers. It takes its readers to an imaginative space that lives at the bottom of the psyche and provides characters that continue to leave a space open for interpretation. She creates a deep dream state from which the reader surfaces occasionally in reality to encompass world issues and basic human interactions. Scalapino closes no doors in this work and it is her open and imaginative style that engages the reader.
There are many ways in which Scalapino brings the reader into the text. For example, the initial layout is easy to navigate (short one page chapters and jarring artwork). There is a humble editor’s note, in the beginning and again three-quarters through, disclaiming this work as an experiment, and also, there is a wide exposure of content ranging from mysteriously sexual, the “pink octopus [who] spreads onto her sucking her middle,” to political satire exposing Sara Palin as an “unctuous peppy hockey mom whose bug-eye syrphid fly’s emotionalism,” and to other topics like Greek Mythology, prostitution, world disaster and psychology. But above content, layout and humility, her most useful tool to invite the reader to enter the text is her use of punctuation (15, 96).
For Scalapino, these marks are active, necessary, and equally important to characters, events, and themes in the text.
Scalapino’s punctuation helps us navigate her vision of these events, and like Virgil from the The Divine Comedy, her punctuation does not bring us to instant safe understanding, but takes us deeper into the makeup of an elaborate story. As Jennifer DeVere Brody writes in her recent book Punctuation:, “Punctuation marks can serve as both sense and sensibility—as the most human element in certain sentences” (6). We can read into the punctuation of Scalapino as the determining factor that allows a deeper sense of the work to be realized by the reader. Realized in the sense that this is not a line or even a ray of thought but a dihedron, a figure formed by many intersecting planes, and in this case many intersecting characters. Through her unusual use of punctuation, she forces the reader to be more active within the work looking around every corner of her three dimensional, dihedral, pages (Brody 6).
This essay will explore how Scalapino uses specific punctuation to add visual and contextual layers to establish a trusting relationship with the reader.
One of the unusual punctuation marks that Scalapino uses in this book of poetic prose is the virgule suspensiva, also called the slash. From the late thirteenth to seventeenth centuries the slash was used as a break in breathe that would guide the reader when to breath in order to navigate a piece of writing comfortably. It was called the virgule suspensiva, which translates to pillars of suspense. When these pillars are used today they represent many things, nearly all lending to abbreviation. They take out the agony of typing a space then the letters “o” and “r” then another space (male/female, y/n, Sir/Madame), even more so when replacing “per” (three shillings/person, five drinks/day), and even more when replacing the beautiful phrase “without” with “w/o.” This process of reduction is fantastic, if time and experience demand such a reduction, but with Scalapino’s The Dihedrons Gazelle-Dihedrals Zoom, this is not the case. Instead, she uses the virgule suspensiva to guide the reader to better understand characters and events in the text. To map the vision of this book, the mass of character intersections (and their emotions), the virgule suspensiva crashes into each chapter as a paring knife opening each corpse, each poem, to see what is further inside, “to open up the meaning conveyed” (16).
One of the ways Scalapino uses the Virgule is to compound nouns. She uses this virgule to clarify who or what is in motion. I say in motion because there are no entirely solid or stationary objects in this book. There are only “ctenophores,” jelly-like invertebrates, always in motion intersecting and fading in and out of chapters, as in dreams, present then replaced then replaced again and gone and the reader is left with a different character by each chapter’s end.
Because of this odd and continuous interaction it is necessary for clarification, which is where the virgule comes into play. DeVere-Brody argues in her introduction that, “Punctuation serves as a form of non-verbal communication… As such, punctuation’s performances are vital forms of interaction” (7). Scalapino’s virgule is “vital” to the reader’s interaction with her written characters—vital in the sense that if there is no clarification there is no understanding.
The reader can see this when Scalapino writes about “the girls” in the poem Peen from The Dihedrons Gazelle-Dihedrals Zoom. Although an initial reading of this virgule may be that of a line break, my interaction with this mark, and studying such throughout the entire work, is more specific and dramatic, albeit more confusing:
—a ‘phenomenal’ event/in the past-instant act seen on the street
[outside], those who flew/the girls lift off fly across the street
disperse are pink flash their coreutics felicity whole or as the
flowing leticule pink frocks flock… (40)
With the title Peen it would easily be assumed that this is a pivotal point in the book and the protagonist or main character of the poem is very important. This poem begins by discussing a newspaper and a missing article which makes the next event, and those involved, more key. Every character in this book flies at some point or other, and without the specification of “the girls,” “those who flew” would not be a sufficient clarification and by page forty the reader could read this as a mass movement of potentially anyone. The virgule here serves to clarify who the main character is to who whom we need to pay attention and gather information.
In the earlier poems in the book, “the girls” are orphans and are made to represent a mass movement of any number of things ranging from a sexual revolution to a fight for societal representation: a powerful group. At the end of this piece we see the aftermath of their passing, “Again crowd or stone has been hammered by a peen that’s spherical smoothing either crowd or stone [is smoothed]…So a stone or crowd from this hammering emerges soft there” (40).
No other character in this book represents such power and particular ability. Without the virgule clarification attributing this destructive scene to “the girls” another character would be given the same destructive abilities.