‘For our own private reasons / We live in each other for an hour. / Stranger, I take your body and its seasons, / Aware the moon has gone a little sour / For us. The moon hangs up there like a stone / Shaken out of its proper setting.’1 The poet Thomas James wrote this stanza – a kind of room – in the seventies. I read it to myself in some early season of the 2000s, let his glittery lines cross the room of my mind, slam up against its pale walls, delineate its darker structure. I imagine a loose moon, that cheap jewel, and its forgotten silver setting, on its own, alone, looping across some sky, outside – a poor constellation that turns your finger blue.
There are different ways to live in another body for an hour. There is the obvious – sex – and the less obvious: performance. Both take place in rooms mostly. I imagine those rooms: the first, mostly domestic, sparsely decorated, for reading and sleeping and fucking. Not much else – though that is a lot, it’s true. Usually white walls, some books, clothes, a bed, maybe a plant if you’re feeling brave. (I realize the scarcity of this description, of this bedroom, is indicative of a certain class, a certain age.) The second kind of room is often more elaborated – in décor, in utility, in space, in history, in economy. I think of the recent room in Tallinn where I read some poems and lectured about feminist poetics earlier this year. A baroquely ornate ballroom of sorts – it belongs to the Estonian Academy of Arts and Sciences – the room overlooked the medieval city and the dull surface of the Baltic stretching its long silver body towards Helsinki.
As I read, an enormous chandelier hung above me, a shimmering planet from old Europe, its candles and bulbs sending out soft, yellow light. The walls were papered with some floral pattern. There were rows and rows of straight-backed wooden chairs that I imagined coming across in an antique store, coming up at an auction. (Though I don’t go to antique stores, I have never been to an auction.) It was a beautiful room. Very far from the stolid Soviet blocks lining the street of my hotel – different ideological pictures, disparate aesthetic registers – though equally a representation of empire. In the nineteenth century Tallinn was reportedly called the Naples of Scandinavia; in this room, I might indeed have been in the baroque South, but no, I was in the very North, on its silver shore. I wanted to take a picture of this room but by the time I finished setting up my computer, the audience had begun to trail in in their puffy coats, which they draped over the tall backs of the chairs, and by then I was too embarrassed.
Rooms promote intimacy; their walls seem to require it. They are representations of power, yes – see that ballroom – but they are also spaces elaborated for privacy and vulnerability, though they are often public. So many walls against the elements. So many shelters for – what – for bodies and their necessities: heat, connection, discretion, power, culture, privacy, communication, all of those performances. Rooms are frames for meaning, for physical and emotional and intellectual intimacy. How is that? And how do we perform that system? Performance, as we all know, is a bodily practice that produces meaning. Spoken language is embodied. The performance of language – the voice – is an everyday enactment that is often cast, inaccurately, as ‘natural’, inevitable and unrehearsed. We know this is not the case (just as it is not the case with nearly everything that we are encouraged to become naturalized to). That said, when we talk about intimate language, the language of sensuality or sexuality, we are often talking about a certain kind of privacy, a certain module of architecture, and the language of that. That is, we are talking about the language between lovers, say, or – more rarely – between the writer and her reader.
But what about the sensuality of the crowd, of the room, of the public audience who fills it? I am thinking about the erotic of the encounter between performer and her audience, her public, between an audience and her performer. I am thinking of the performance of language itself, of language offered to and exchanged with an audience. And the way in which the speaking performer responds to unspoken cues from the room, just as a lover might respond to unspoken cues from her partner (not exactly but you get the point). A kind of intimate privacy happens in public rooms, within their frames. There’s a saying in English I often come back to: to read the room. It means to be able to take the temperature of a certain situation, read the emotional cues of a crowd, adapt to a social atmosphere, within a circumscribed space. A performance, then. A set of relations. Framed by walls. Through sound, mostly, but also without it.
Performing language for an audience is different from writing language: it is more like sex. Let me explain. As I write I compulsively edit, I compress; I fit the rhythm and syntax to the page, make the punctuation jarring and artificial – a kind of style that I seem to gravitate to – so as to keep the reader alert. So as to keep myself alert. I make the language unnatural, which is to say, I make it unspoken. As I write I am constantly aware of the architecture of the page, the walls my line-breaks might slam against, the distance my words might keep from them, the weird work that punctuation might do, the feeling and truth and lie it might constellate and puncture. Writing, the performance of language on the page – so that it seems ‘real’, sounds ‘natural’ to the ear – is wholly different from that of spoken language. Every writer knows this.
When I am reading language out loud for an audience, when I am performing it, the room of the page disappears. And so, with it its strange syntactical necessities. Instead I am in a physical room with an audience: we are bound by a new set of walls. A new architectural grammar ties us together. The grammar of the body and the voice, the reader and the receiver; the walls that foreground and frame us. I stop reading the punctuation on the page and begin to adapt my syntax to the physical room I am in, to the breathing bodies that fill it. I begin adapting my sentences to my natural need for breath, to, naturally, my body. I begin adapting my syntax to the collective body in front of me. I pause when it seems that the (collective) body needs some air. I am reading for both of us, through both of our bodies. It is a strange solidarity, this, some kind of collective breathing through spoken language, its performance.
As I read to other bodies, as I attend to the language in front of me; my written text is suddenly reduced to a kind of veil, a false wall, if you will. (Let’s remain in the language of architecture, even for just a moment.) I forget my written words as soon as I read them because what I am actually attending to is the wall of bodies in front of me, another kind of text, as I attempt to discern (to read) what kind of syntax might work for them, what rhythm, what loudness or softness, what length or staccato of pauses. I am trying to find the hook or chorus that will catch them. I am trying to make us read this text together. I am attempting to put us in a kind of trance. I breathe when they breathe, etc. My looping voice, the lines of language as they cross the room, over and over, does this as much as their breathing bodies. That is to say, my body does this as much as their bodies. We are in this together.
‘Gently, you begin undoing the cloth ribbon that corsets it around the waist, revealing a pale line where the cloth has rested for so long,’ Arlette Farge writes. ‘Unsettling and colossal, the archive grabs hold of the reader.’2 The French historian is talking about eighteenth-century judicial archives in France – the seemingly dry subject of her brilliant work – but the physical intimacy of her writing, the unsubtly of her metaphor, makes explicit the way in which the work of language (writing, reading, literature, the archive, singing, speaking) is most often channelled through suggestions of the sexual grappling of bodies. A coupling that might simply (never so simply) be the exchange of language, of communication.
Consider, for example, the title of a book by the artist and writer Moyra Davey that I worked on some years ago: Speaker Receiver.3 The title suggests both her series of photographs of dusty speakers and analogue stereo equipment that she was making at the time, and her literary practice, which along with filmmaking and photography, makes up the tripartite of her brilliant work, all of which is inflected by her consummate reading. I think about this title all the time. Likely because I move so often between its poles: as an author and performer of my writings and as a receiver of so many other writers and artists in my work as a critic and editor. But Davey’s title does more than that: the lack of punctuation that separates the two words, their world – Speaker Receiver, one could chant it forever – and their Beckett-like compression, suggests the collapse of two different and yet dependent modes, two different and yet dependent bodies, into one another. The Speaker faces the Receiver so closely they might be read as one collaborating, grappling body. Certainly, they are in this – whatever this might be – together.
Interestingly, as I began to perform my writings more and more over the past decade, my inclination to stage this encounter between speaker and receiver, the reader and the listener, in my writings has increased. I began writing on the page for some future possible performance. Some future audience. My essays began to include litanies and refrains that I knew would work well live, as spoken language. I began to use a call-and-response form in some of my poems, or stage them as writings for two or more voices. There is a religious context to these literary and linguistic forms – the call-and-response is a familiar form in Jewish prayers and in the African-American church, among others – and a social justice aspect: think of the chants in street protests, in the Black church, which are written to engage the crowd. As the novelist Gayle Jones writes, ‘[I]n oral traditions of storytelling – African-American and others … there is always the consciousness and importance of the hearer.’4 Or as June Jordan writes of ‘Black English’:
‘[E]very sentence assumes the living and active participation of at least two human beings, the speaker and the listener.’5 The respondent is an integral part of the text; in some sense, she writes it too. The audience writes it too.
‘On the stage of the text, no footlights: there is not, behind the text, someone active (the writer) and out front someone passive (the reader): there is not a subject and an object. The text supersedes grammatical attitudes,’ Roland Barthes writes in The Pleasure of the Text.6 He is of course speaking about the private writer and reader, and the text that suspends them; he is not talking about performance except as metaphor. Still, this metaphor he chooses – stage, performer, audience – is interesting. It ‘speaks to’ the performative act of language and its reception. That it might not be a two-way street, always. There might be a crowd. But in this metaphor Barthes presumes the audience in his theatre of performed language as a passive body. I don’t think so, though. Why must an audience in a theatre be passive? Anyone on any stage would tell you this is not the case, no doubt. Even Barthes himself seems to refute this projected passivity when he elaborates on the agency of the reader, their will.
But back to the body. Barthes also notes: ‘Apparently Arab scholars, when speaking of the text, use this admirable expression: the certain body,’ he writes. ‘Does the text have human form, is it a figure, an anagram of the body? Yes, but of the erotic body. The pleasure of the text is irreducible to physiological need.’ Finally, he notes: ‘The pleasure of the text is that moment when my body pursues its own ideas – for my body does not have the same ideas I do.’7 Reworking his equation for the performance of language, shifting it to the room or to the stage of reading, one might say that the pleasure of the performed text is that moment when my body pursues the ideas of the audience’s body – for their body does not have the same ideas that mine does.
Let’s talk for a second about the audience’s body. What does it want? The erotics of the performative encounter in any room is not a one-way street (as Walter Benjamin knew8). The audience’s body wants to watch. Thus, the audience to a performance is a kind of voyeur. What that voyeur wants: a performer totally in control of their vulnerability, their self-revelation, their story, some sound. When it all gets too real, that is, when the performer loses control of their self-revelation, the audience is embarrassed, is embarrassed for the performer. A physical embarrassment that begins and ends in the body, that spreads out over it. We’ve all felt it. But for the performer to be successful, for the voyeur to be satisfied, the performer must come up right against the edge of losing control, of risking humiliation, without going over that edge. Thus, the audience’s body wants to, yes, watch. Watch what? The performer perform risk. That is: intimacy, self-disclosure, vulnerability, privacy. But in total control. And in public. The private performed for a public. In a room, as always.
Something suddenly stops me. A question rises like a wall in the middle of the room of this text. Why this incessant writing and theorizing about rooms? My own, and others? As long as I have been a writer, I have written about the rooms in which I work and live: bedrooms, ballrooms, hotel rooms, lecture rooms, living rooms, meeting rooms, waiting rooms. In college, I began writing about the rooms of poems (stanzas) and about the domestic architecture found in the poems of Emily Dickinson and others, and it seems that I have not stopped. In the preface to Jutta Koether’s 1987 novella f., a feminist polemic on the practice of painting that features a group of women painters and the objects that surround them and constellate their work, the curators Isabelle Graw and Daniel Birnbaum write: ‘[We are constantly reminded of the increased importance of the person (the artist) behind her product (her art). The way the artist stages herself is therefore treated as an integral part of her practice.’9
What is the stage of the writer? The room she writes in. The room she performs that language in. This compulsion of mine to write these rooms into being, into the being of the text itself, is not simply an interest in the domestic as it relates to feminism and women, not entirely, though that idea arises repeatedly. It is not an accident that Koether’s female painter protagonists are surrounded by domestic objects and spaces, their stages, even in the studios where they work. As the architectural historian Jane Rendell writes in ‘Feminist Architecture: From A to Z’:
‘The interior and the domestic have been perhaps the most thoroughly explored of feminist architecture’s “other spaces” as they have both been directly associated with the private sphere, and as such subordinated to the public city, in both patriarchal and capitalist cultures within the discourse of modernity. Research on the interior has had a special resonance for women.’10
By collapsing the private and the public in this essay – their architectures and audiences and languages – am I resisting the marginality of the sites that define me? Not exactly. Am I performing that margin, that interior, and thus making it public and central – to my experience as well as the experience of my audience? Perhaps. My past writings on rooms would seem to be an attempt to transform the social and political condition of the place that is so often my site and subject – the private architectural interior – into a space of feminism and feminist work. As so many have done. Now, here, am I attempting to turn public spaces – invested with patriarchal power and its capital – into places of privacy and intimacy, familiar sites for writers equipped with bodies like mine? This would seem to be too essentialist a reading by far. A slighter but less problematic reading of the situation at hand might be this: I am simply occupied, quite literally, by the very spatial conditions that I myself occupy. I do know that this compulsion to narrate my rooms is not simply mimetic, nor some self-reflexive or postmodern approach to autofiction – it is something else.
Perhaps it is in the end about the body, about this body – all its gendered and class and racial signifiers, its little exiles and emotional singularities – and about the rooms that made me, and about the rooms of my making, the rooms in which my language transpires, rooms which include the social body. Perhaps it is about an attempt at solidarity, an acknowledgement of the collective nature of our work and struggle. Maybe. It could be. Why this compulsive need, though, to turn each place of making into a stage? To write it, to perform it? To beckon close an audience? To turn each turn into an erotic encounter? I wonder, too, how my constant staging of the private rooms in my writing relates to my performance of language in the public sphere. How each stage informs the other. My writing is called performative, often. What does this performance become when it is actually performed, read live for an audience? So many questions – another kind of literary performance, one on the page.
‘Orality… is inseparable from the body in movement,’ Édouard Glissant once wrote.11 ‘Putting a door on the female mouth has been an important project of patriarchal culture from antiquity to the present day,’ Anne Carson notes in her essay ‘The Gender of Sound.’12 Sound and language, its performance, is about control. All of us, but women in particular, in every society, are taught to physically regulate our sounds – often to silence them – from the moment that we are born. In the rooms of my work – private rooms, public rooms, and rooms of the page – I have been attempting to perform and think through the relationship between sound and body in a different way: a different kind of control, no doors, only mouths.
So. On that note, let us come back to the poet Thomas James, whose lines I began with here, whose stanza, whose room. What did he suggest? That there are different ways to live in another’s body for an hour. Us, for example. My voice, your body. Do you think, reader, stranger, that I have lived in your body for an hour? (Certainly not a season for an essay so short.) Coming back to Barthes again (as one does, and does, when writing about language), I’d like to go to his lines about criticism. They always make me laugh, when he admits, with a perverse pleasure, the dullness of the reporting profession, that is, the profession of the critic. He writes, wonderfully: ‘How can we take pleasure in a reported pleasure (boredom of all narratives of dreams, of parties)? How can we read criticism?’ Totally. As a critic who loves non-fiction, I get a perverse thrill from those lines. How strange are our desires for criticality. The fetish of the straight woman (or man, sure, whatever). Barthes goes on to say (to write) why:
How can we read criticism? Only one way: since I am here a second-degree reader, I must shift my position: instead of agreeing to be the confidant of this critical pleasure – a sure way to miss it – I can make myself its voyeur: I observe clandestinely the pleasure of others, I enter perversion; the commentary then becomes in my eyes a text, a fiction, a fissured envelope. The writer’s perversity (his pleasure in writing is without function), the doubled, the trebled, the infinite perversity of the critic and his reader.13
He then notes, rightly: ‘A text on pleasure cannot be anything but short (as we say: is that all? It’s a bit short); since pleasure can only be spoken through the indirection of a demand.’ I think I agree. To that end, and to your perversity, reader, and for mine, I will end here, a bit quickly, perhaps, maybe lacking, but like the performer on the stage, it is better to leave the audience wanting more – it is the perversity of desire that one must leave it unfulfilled, desire as discontent, as need, as mouth – not less. So. See you in some room, soon, maybe.
- Thomas James, ‘Reasons’, in Letters to a Stranger: Poems (Graywolf Press, 2008).
- Arlette Farge, The Allure of the Archives, trans. Thomas Scott-Railton (Yale University Press, 2013), 2, 5.
- Moyra Davey, Speaker Receiver (Sternberg Press, 2012).
- Gayle Jones quoted in Patricia Hill Collins, Black Feminist Thought (Routledge, 2000), 280.
- June Jordan, On Call (South End Press, 1985), 129.
- Roland Barthes, The Pleasure of the Text, trans. Richard Miller (Hill and Wang/FSG, 1975), 16.
- Walter Benjamin, ‘One-Way Street’, in Reflections: Essays, Aphorisms, Autobiographical Writings, trans. Edmund Jephcott, ed. Peter Demetz (Schocken Books, 1986), 61. ‘One-Way Street’ includes this dedication by Benjamin: ‘This street is named / Asja Lacis Street / after her who / as an engineer / cut it through the author.’ Asja Lacis was a celebrated Latvian stage director, actress, and author who helped introduce the work of Bertolt Brecht to the Soviet stage, wrote the first history of the theatre of the Weimar Republic, and significantly influenced the thinking of Benjamin, her friend and collaborator. Lacis’s methodology of theatrical pedagogy was conceptualized in a text, ‘Programm eines proletarischen Kindertheaters’, by Benjamin, and together they wrote the travelogue ‘Neapel’, published in 1925 in the Frankfurter Zeitung.
- Jutta Koether, f., trans. Nick Mauss, Michael Sanchez, ed. Isabelle Graw, Daniel Birnbaum (Sternberg Press, 2015), 5.
- Jane Rendell, ‘Feminist Architecture: From A to Z’, www.readingdesign.org/feminist-architecture-a-z, accessed on April 15, 2018.
- Édouard Glissant, Caribbean Discourse: Selected Essays (University Press of Virginia, 1989), 122.
- Anne Carson, ‘The Gender of Sound’, in Glass, Irony and God (New Directions, 1995), 121.
- Barthes, The Pleasure of the Text, 17.