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The Strangeness of Scalapino’s Tango

Leslie Scalapino’s book The Tango (NY: Granary Books, 2001) interweaves her own poetry and photographs, along with artwork by Marina Adams, into something that feels as light and airy as a spiderweb but can also be as resistant as kevlar. Measuring about 13 by 10 inches in size, the book itself is not a typical or intimate volume of poetry.

Scalapino’s work is elusive.  It’s ultimately fruitless to try to divine what the poem might be “about”, since Scalapino’s real subjects are language and communications and what it means to be social beings.  She uses phrases, cliches, fragments, and single words rather than full traditional sentences and she forgoes traditional grammar.  Her poems are full of quotation marks, italics and other typographical elements.  When I read her poems with all their chopped up elements, I find myself rearranging and realigning the components like a Rubik’s Cube, trying to find meaning.

The sequence of photographs in The Tango was shot in a Tibetan monastery.  The photographs take on the form of a cinematic dance as the camera follows a number of young monks who congregate in a courtyard, debate, reassemble into new groups, think, listen, talk, sing, and dance.  The physicality of the ever-changing group of monks hints at the unseen, unknowable discussion in which they are engaged and may also serve as a metaphor for the elusive nature of language and communication.

I have come to think of Scalapino as someone who likes to takes complicated mechanical watches apart to see how they tick.  The question I’m not prepared to answer is if her art stops at dissection of if she manages to put all the pieces back together in a pattern that I simply don’t recognize as a watch.  Writers often deliberately make the world strange as a way of forcing us to look at the familiar in new ways.  What Scalapino and others who are often lumped together as “language poets” do is make language itself strange so that we no longer take it for granted.  This is a brave and lonely undertaking that makes for off-putting reading for all but a small readership.

While there are many novels that have photographic images embedded within the text, I’m now only beginning to run across only a few volumes of poetry in which photographic imagery seems to be an integral part of a poem.  The most recent is Anne Carson’s new book-length poem Nox (NY: New Directions, 2010), which I wrote about recently).  Leslie Scalapino, an endless experimenter who died less than two months ago, wrote several books of poetry with embedded photographs.  I’ll be writing about another title soon.


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