Some Assembly Required: Scalapino’s Crowd
How does a poem function that consists of handwritten texts interspersed with photographs? When the texts can face any direction on the page, including upside-down? When the photographs – which are amateur snapshots – are cropped to many sizes and can also be stood on their sides? When the written text refers to “wading in the grass,” a drunk, a corpse, and assorted other seemingly unrelated subjects, while the photographs depict people standing on sandy beaches or wading through low, gentle surf?
On one level, such a poem functions pretty much like any other dense, highly allusive, self-referential poem that demands constant reassembly as we absorb the words. But in this case – and I’m referring to Leslie Scalapino’s book-length poem Crowd and not evening or light – the poem also exists on a totally different level where it is the very nature of meaning itself that we are forced to reassemble as we read.
There are some clues on how to proceed. Take the word “trunk,” for example, which appears over and over throughout the written text, referring to an elephant’s trunk, the human torso, and unnamed human appendages which can appear like trunks. In the photographs we can see the torsos of people as they walk and wade, but we also see their swimming trunks and the trunks of trees near the beach, neither of which appear in the writing. This is just one of numerous ways in which Scalapino reminds us that meaning is dependent on context. What Scalapino often does in her poetry is force language into the process of losing its anchor in context, letting it start to float free.
Crowd and not evening or light (Oakland: O Books, 1992) contains 76 photographs by the poet. Several years later, Scalapino excerpted two of these photographs and their related texts in an anthology of her work called Green and Black: Selected Writings (Jersey City: Talisman House, 1996). I’m not sure what this implies, but the two sections of the poem she excerpted were not contiguous, as if she were excerpting two different stanzas – one from page 85 and one from page 91 – rather than an uninterrupted segment.
In a recent post I wrote about another book-length poem by Leslie Scalapino, also with embedded photographs, called The Tango.