In 1999’s Best American Essays Edward Hoagland tells us “essays are how we speak to one another in print . . . in a kind of public letter.” Like a numbers station out there broadcasting, he’s still telling us. That sentence is still raisined in the brain and seems to be going nowhere. I can’t exorcise it. I used it in an essay. I’m using it now in another. That makes it a seed, a panoply.
Dear Albert, I finally got around to reading your strange 1979 poem-novel Different Fleshes. I had to borrow Alison Deming’s copy, since it’s out of print. Hers is filled with marginalia from (she says) 1983. To read another writer’s marked-up copy of a book is to read two books at once, text and paratext, the passage and the pilgrim’s progress, to see how an animal takes root and begins to worm inside a brain, even if it we don’t get to see its final bloom. There’s no end to the ways that this can shell, reading an essay responding to an essay responding to marginalia on another’s essay terminating in a corner of an MC Escher drawing, not one of the famous ones.
I didn’t use to care like this. Look what books have done to me.
You know by now I emailed you a decade back. You only know this because I told you via letter, after learning that you never use email, and have, in fact, never touched a computer. Your aversion is not to all technology (after all, the pencil is technology, the box, the essay, the poem, the typewriter, the letter, and the US Mail), since I have your cell phone number in my own phone, a kind of handshake, which we’ve also shared in the past. I recognize a familiar heart, a collector’s heart, a conservator’s. In an interview (yes I read it on the Internet: how do you get by without the quiet hum of connectivity, of near-instant gratification?) you note: “A lot of my own private life is devoted to a sense of conservancy . . . I conserve objects and ideas in my life. In fact, it hurts me when I see public telephone booths and post office drop-boxes disappearing from the American landscape. Some of my poetry implicitly asks to be a body that freezes some of those objects and the sensibilities they stand for in time. In fact, any poem, whether one wants it to be or not, is necessarily a block of language that to some extent holds firm a group of words and maybe the ideas those groups of words are meant to represent against the depredations of time. To that extent, I think almost any writer is a conservator.” Almost any reader too. Though we may love the future in different ways, sir, we read to court the past. But how will you access the library’s catalog if you eschew computers?
Dear Alison, at first I found it strange that you underlined this bit: “wherever human/ light and salt are done correctly:/ my friends are alive.” Your marginalia points out the past’s presence in the present, an ongoing concern of Albert’s book (and of this book). In the literary present, anyone we read remains alive. Do you draw my attention to Albert’s punctuation in this excerpt? True, a comma would have been the easy choice, but the colon performs a greater prestidigitation: in its longer pause, in the next clause it introduces, in its very act of introduction, its grammatical function (a disruption and conjunction), its small smoke puffs, it summons and resurrects its friends.
Technologies just multiply our hauntings. Thank Derrida for hauntology, from the 1983 film Ghost Dance, in which he plays himself, a kind of apparition: “Modern developments in technology and communication, instead of diminishing the realm of ghosts, as does any scientific or technical thought, [are multiplying them:] ghosts are part of the future . . . modern technology of images like cinematography and telecommunication enhances the power of ghosts and their ability to haunt us.” All of this electricity is built on history and often it acknowledges it.
Think of our infatuation, in the digital age, with traces of the analog: even digital summons digit, summons finger, that which operates the machine; static and tape deck hiss intrude on contemporary songs as if to respect the past, but often enough they just throw a gesture toward it. A reference is not a resurrection. A sample is not ample to bring it back alive. An image of a book onscreen is not a book. The thing itself retains some meaning, even this late in the evening.