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  • Something from Nothing:The Disontological Poetics of Leslie Scalapino
  • Jason Lagapa (bio)

When we talk about our way, there is apt to be some misunderstanding, because the true way always has at least two sides, the negative and the positive.... We cannot speak in a positive and negative way at the same time. So we do not know what to say. It is almost impossible to talk about Buddhism. So not to say anything, just to practice it, is the best way.

Shunryu Suzuki, Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind

Leslie Scalapino's writings require of their reader a tremendous amount of concentration, discipline, and patience. The sentences that Scalapino uses within her poems are often spare, affectless, and radically discontinuous, and because these sentences are frequently bereft of a stable or easily identifiable context, her poems can alternately produce a hypnotic allure or a jarring, disoriented sensation. Like novices in some esoteric tradition, the readers of Scalapino's texts must engage in a careful practice of focused attention due to the complex and abstruse nature of the poet's writings. That Scalapino's work demands a level of nearly meditative concentration is not altogether surprising: Scalapino develops her poetics in part from Buddhist principles and can point to her own early introduction to Buddhism as formative. Elisabeth Frost argues persuasively that Scalapino is indebted to Gertrude Stein and to Stein's development of "an epistemology of composition," yet Scalapino has also remarked upon the prior and substantial influence of Buddhist philosophy and, more specifically, the teachings of Nāgārjuna on her [End Page 30] poetry: "Phenomenology and Stein's view of the continuous present and her view of perception have some similarity to views of perception and phenomena in Tibetan and Zen Buddhist philosophy (such as that of the early Indian philosopher Nāgārjuna), [whose] writings seem to me far more radical than Stein's, and which had already influenced me before I came to read her" ("Interview" 22).1 The emphasis, moreover, that Zen Buddhism places on practice, or zazen—a disciplined exercise of meditation that requires proper sitting posture, breathing techniques, and clearing of the mind—further points to important attributes of Scalapino's poetry, including a fascination with the recursive process of writing and its inherent critique of subjectivity. Acknowledging the influence of Buddhism on Scalapino's work can help initiate readers into the intricacies of her texts. Indeed, one might profitably focus on the word "practice" itself to address what Adelaide Morris refers to as "the koan-like elusiveness of her writing" (par. 31). With its connotations of both methodology and repeated exercise, "practice" points to the importance of process in Scalapino's poetics as well as to the significance of repetition within her poetry. Employing repetitive, ironic, and self-canceling utterances, Scalapino forges a vigilantly self-reflexive poetics, yet this hyperawareness of the methods and process of composition surprisingly leads toward a critique of traditional notions of authorship and poetic narrative. Just as practitioners of zazen work to attain a level of egolessness through repeated efforts of meditation, Scalapino practices a self-reflexive discipline of negative poetics in order to challenge conventional Western conceptions of both the process of writing and the nature of being. But even as Scalapino embraces Buddhist principles in her work, she remains [End Page 31] engaged with Western poetic and philosophical traditions that offer their own reassessment of accepted ideas about ontology and writing. I consequently read Scalapino as a cross-cultural poet.2 Although I seek primarily to establish the correlation between Scalapino's writing and Buddhist thought, I also intend to evince how Scalapino draws on Western philosophy for her critique of ontology.

The negations inherent to Scalapino's writings express complex philosophical and religious preoccupations with the nature of being, making it important to clarify some of the Buddhist critiques of ontology upon which Scalapino draws. While Buddhist asceticism and its goal of attaining enlightenment through a negation of the ego or the self are familiar in the West, the Buddhist aim to do away with the ego is often misconstrued as sheer nihilism. In Outlines of Mahayana Buddhism, Buddhist scholar D. T. Suzuki is...


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