The Back Room


To See Language as Lace

Madeline Rose
To let the light not on but in or though. To look not at the text but through it; to see between the lines; to see language as lace, black on white; or white on black, as in the sky at night, or in the space on which our dreams are traced. –Norman O. Brown

Love’s Body arrived by way of Logos, the now-vacant bookstore where I worked after college. I was at the front register, feeling an early autumn wind through the breezeway. I think I became interested because we share a birthday, or because I felt bound to the book somehow, in a way that you, if you have been bound to a book, would understand. With pages copied in the fax room, I started cutting. 

I was obsessed. The desire was for language not my own. The library has always been a space of secrets and possibility, so I went to the library and found “the I without the parentheses and the I within the parentheses,” as Kathy Acker writes. I was interested in pleasure and dissolution, how many voices can create a fiction. “To begin (writing, living) we must have death,” writes Hélène Cixous. We love the dead. We hear their voices.

Norman O. Brown was a philosopher, classicist, and scholar born in El Oro, Mexico, on September 25, 1913, and raised in England, where he went to Oxford. He worked for the OSS (precursor to the CIA) during World War II, where he met Herbert Marcuse, and arrived at UC Santa Cruz in 1968 as a professor of humanities and history of consciousness, two years after Love’s Body was published. He died in Santa Cruz on October 2, 2002. 

From Brown’s memorial video, 2002

Feeling a kind of pleasurable idleness, I was looking for a project, something to keep me grounded in the events of my life. Having just graduated from what turned out to be online poetry grad school, I arrived in Brown’s archive in the summer of 2021. Notecards were alphabetized and on topics like The Rose or Athena; yellow ledgers worked out lectures and had Xeroxed papers stapled to them; composition notebooks were titled “Fragmentary jottings 1966-73” or “Islam 83” and written in English, French, German, Greek. I hardly understood his work, and the more I uncovered and transcribed, the less I knew.

Personality is a persona. Every person is many people, many voices. The book is aphoristic in mode with what Nathaniel Mackey at Brown’s memorial called “verse-like ventilation.” The book is an open window — a place where poetry is the visionary form that transforms the world, where, per Mackey, “transformation is unification.”

Love’s Body ends in creative destruction, the cosmic dance of opposites, with the sage or muni — the silent one. And one can’t always follow the logic, the logos of the thread — full of silences and nothingness, with a reaching toward undoing syntactical bindings by letting the word levitate. Brown writes in the final chapter, “in a dialectical view: silence and speech, these two, are one.” The book concludes with the provocative line: 

Everything is only a metaphor; there is only poetry.
Notes for “Dionysus in 1992”

“Chance,” Brown writes in the unpublished text “Dionysus in 1992,” “is not an individual choice but a collective destiny; in which the individual is sacrificed” because “[w]e are to the degree in which we risk ourselves… [t]he river of individuality is lost in the ocean.” The San Lorenzo River dissolves into the Pacific. 

Days were marked by separation. The screen was a gauzy mediator between friends across seas, me and my poems, war and the faulty language upholding it. I turned on the radio and drove north on Highway 1, surrounded by bright meadows and charred redwoods, meditating on light. I started going to church and was learning the names of native plants. I wrote my mind, excess, beauty, madness. With little money and so much time, it felt selfish to be consumed by language and experience. But it seemed the only place where I could risk myself, reconcile being and dissolution, was in the poem. I simply was and am not sure it was enough. I went swimming.

The body is an organizing principle in Brown’s work. In a March 1967 reply to Marcuse’s critique one month earlier of Love’s Body, he writes:

From politics to poetry. Legislation is not politics, nor philosophy, but poetry. […] Poetry, art, imagination, the creator spirit is life itself; the real revolutionary power to change the world; and to change the human body.

Language becomes dissolution, and chance is a way of seeing through, of extending the boundary of the body. Brown writes, “all boundaries [are] not natural but conventional; like all boundaries, based on love and hate.” The boundaries are also political, and they are perhaps make-believe. Brown wanted to “get the nothingness back into words” so words can become “words with nothing to them, empty words, corresponding to the void in things.” Made of nothing, we might stumble elsewhere — into the poem, the body, the truth which is “always scandalous, a stumbling block.” The road out of excess is turned inward, leading back into the body.

Robert Duncan came to UC Santa Cruz at Brown’s invitation; he and Brown (or “Nobby,” as Duncan and other friends referred to him) shared extensive correspondence; Brown credits Duncan with introducing him to modern poetry. “The book may not have accomplished what it set out to do,” Duncan writes to him of Love’s Body, but instead offers a “radical change in the body of writing” because of the attention on language itself. The sentences are a prose poem “compelled toward nakedness.” They disclose and clothe, like lace — the image of Brown as person, and the image of poetry.

Love’s Body reveals and obscures the intention of words with hidden meanings, where meaning is “always sexual.” In correspondence with poet and potter M.C. Richards, Brown has recently given his Phi Beta Kappa speech at Harvard and is preoccupied with “the sense of the word ‘meaning’” — the place where “disjointed metaphors illustrate the paradox between reality and the word,” between seeing and being seen. He writes, “Somewhere in the written word, our deepest insights could arrive as a condition of highest abstraction.” Richards responds:

And I have had too another kind of thinking about poetry. [...] I tend to think that by the time the experience gets to the “voices” there is no mystery. I think I have some clues now to the further springs. To the metamorphosis of other elements into speech. What has put me on this track is the meditation on light: upon picture, image, form, sound.

An impeccable poet, Richards loves the risk — Brown is married, after all — seemingly obscuring her real feelings: “Sometime you will tell me of eros and I will tell you of separation.” The letters begin in 1960 and end in 1962. I read through them, then experienced a wave of almost indifference, or regret at having spent time — that enormous city — constructing a reality, looking through papers.

For years I took that precious book to coffee shops along Pacific Ave, transcribing, writing into spaces between the lines. I leaned on what Cedar Sigo once called “collage as the inflection of voice” and made poems, essays, postcards, collages, magazines. In the archive I hoped to uncover a secret about why I was drawn to cutting words to get to their essence. Love's Body was a persona, a metaphor for what I loved, who I was. Perhaps I was there to mourn.

The notebook is a critical daybook, an interior space. I meander through the textual field where citations appear, or they don’t — amid poems, conversations, I Ching divinations, notes, sketches, tracking of bodily time. I am not sure which voice is my own, what happened and what didn’t. Of “The Santa Cruz Propositions” Duncan writes, “events in Santa Cruz belong to the poem.” The poem is event, landscape, ground.

city becomes less itself
poppies burst the -walk
much not written, living it instead
the real requires patience -- Etel Adnan
the passage between perception and visibility
clearer, less opaque -- the I
13 atmospheric rains since jan -- we walk
               the levy, language      flooded

The body is a site of knowledge, of thoughtfulness. My body — one that betrays systems of productiveness, chronically interrupted by pain, preoccupied with voice and sound, a body with will — is compelled toward the poem. Collage became a mode for transgressing the boundaries of body and voice. Dying to love and shed my I. The beauty of this place is also in its irresolution. How many times I have been in the same sea, renewed. The I, “the divine tautology came up at me off a page one day: I AM THAT, and I saw that it was lopsided (William Burroughs and Brion Gysin, The Third Mind). Is the I real or an abstraction?

Poetry! Would poetry have sustaind us?     It’s lovely 
     —and no more than a wave—
                                   –“The Santa Cruz Propositions”

I keep going to the sea, using words to extend the actual horizon line. Am I still faced with the same wave? 

Lead image: Postcard from Norman O. Brown's collection. All archival material held at Special Collections at University of California, Santa Cruz. All material referenced and re-printed with the permission of, and with thanks to, the Norman O. Brown estate. ‍See Brown University Press’ Boundary 2: Norman O. Brown, Into the Future.

The Back Room