Framing Vacuums

Black Pond, New Time and The Book of Tea

‘The reality of a room, for instance, was to be found in the vacant space enclosed by the roof and walls, not in the roof and walls themselves. The usefulness of a water pitcher dwelt in the emptiness where water might be put, not in the form of the pitcher or the material of which it was made… In art the importance of the same principle is illustrated by the value of suggestion… A vacuum is there for you to enter and fill up the full measure of your aesthetic emotion.’ – Okakura Kakuzō, The Book of Tea

In his lecture, ‘Construction and the Frame‘, Allen Fisher describes how framing has been used in painting for millennia (Fisher gives examples going back to Egypt 14th century BC) as a means to create drama and narrative, particularly in overlapping of the frame. He traces the use of framing through to mid-twentieth- to early-twenty-first-century works by Ben Nicholson, Wilhelmina Barns-Graham, Peter Lanyon, Harry Thubron and Geoffrey Olsen. There is a wabi sabi feel to many of these later pieces, where mixed media and collage are often applied, and jostling geometries are juxtaposed to invigorate the construction with proprioceptive dynamics. On a similar tangent to The Book of Tea are Fisher’s own Tea Studies (2010), where hand-drawn and accidental mark-making is framed by off-centre leaning trapezoids, which cut across the image, severing and spotlighting fragments.

Part 8 of Fisher’s recent sequence Black Pond (Spanner, 2020) is subtitled ‘after Morton Feldman’. Allen informed me in an email that the structure used for that section was Feldman’s Projection 2 (1951). It is interesting to see the correspondence between the shapes of Feldman’s graph squares and Fisher’s collaged stanzas, the connections between Black Pond’s juxtaposed strands and neurofibrillary tangles and Feldman’s ephemeral threads of notes and chords. Fisher seems to have taken Feldman’s grid notation and applied it as a frame for the stanza-spaces of Black Pond 8: for example, the first two stanzas are shorter, while the third is longer, seemingly corresponding in some way to the number of squares in each column of Feldman’s graph.

In a seminar available on PennSound, Leslie Scalapino talks about Feldman’s music as ‘structure without imagery’, ‘avoiding the symbolic aspects of sound through spontaneity and indeterminacy of pitch’, ‘preventing the structure from becoming an image’ (Scalapino, Seminar, SUNY Buffalo, March 7, 1991). Scalapino uses this to discuss Frank O’Hara’s Second Avenue, which she describes as ‘A sensual succession of images which are improvisatory denotations. A strategy or step or notation rather than being about that.’

This aptly denotes the rhyming strategies in Fisher’s own poetry where the improvised images could also be seen as denotations of structure, like Feldman’s graph notations. Black Pond 8, for example, begins with the couplet, ‘the logos of the house our last glacier / the bogus offered nous our lack lustre’. Rhyme here creates a frame, so that the line becomes an abstracted shape to improvise within. Phonemic patterning is paralleled from ‘logos’ to ‘bogus’, and ‘house’ to ‘nous’, while a semantic echo reverberates between ‘glacier’ and ‘lustre’. The same rhyme-shape recurs in the second stanza: ‘the rogue out of dwelling our fast heritage’ and ‘the rotation swelling our eaten property / a floatation powered smelting of street and poverty’. The way the lines are progressively transformed, improvising off the structure of the sentence like a notation, bears resemblance to serialist tone-rows. As the lines mutate through sound, they veer away from sense, becoming vacated frames, yet with a suggestiveness that invites the reader to trace out meanings – e.g. a recuring sense of home (house, dwelling, property, street) and mind (logos, nous) destroyed by corruption and pollution (last glacier, bogus, rogue, eaten, smelting). By the time these echoes arrive, the previous iteration has been partially forgotten, but there is a resonance in the shape and sound of the line, like in Feldman’s music where phrases repeat with variations so that you feel like you are always on the edge of recognition.

Feldman’s principles of asymmetry and not correcting mistakes resonate with the aesthetics of the tea ceremony, where the tea room would be arranged in a simple and natural way as a frame for the encounter. Walter Zimmerman made a drawing of Feldman’s String Quartet II, which apparently ‘looks like an asymmetrical rug pattern. Feldman, who was a great connoisseur of the Oriental art of knotting rugs, mastered this art of not correcting false knots. That meant, he noted, he recorded his compositions but never took back what he had put down. He left it there’ (Dieter Mersch, ‘At the Margins of the Audible. Morton Feldman’s Ephemeral Compositions’).

Feldman weaves these imperfections within repeated patterns like a rug-maker: ‘In older oriental rugs the dyes are made in small amounts and so what happens is that there is an imperfection throughout the rug of changing colors of these dyes. Most people feel that they are imperfections. Actually it is the refraction of the light on these small dye batches that makes the rugs wonderful. I interpreted this as going in and out of tune. There is a name for that in rugs – it’s called abrash – a change of colors that leads us into pieces like Instruments III (1977) which was the beginning of my rug idea’ (Feldman, quoted in Meg Wilhoite, ‘Feldman the Rug-maker, Weaving For John Cage’).

I couldn’t find a picture of Zimmerman’s drawing but I found this description: ‘Walter Zimmerman drew in 1984 graphical “pattern carpet” (“Muster Teppich”) representation / analysis of Feldman’s String Quartet II (1983), which formed part of a 1985 [essay]. The drawing, which appears spread over two pages in the essay, was described by Feldman as a “duplication graphically of the kind of material that comes and goes in the piece.” The drawing is made up of a grid, wherein each box represents one of the 124 pages of the quartet’s manuscript, and each box is divided into three parts, one for each system of the score. Musical “material” is represented by straight or wavy lines, asterisks, squares, dots, circles, triangles and so on, and even a quick glance shows the significance of the Feldman’s page and system grids – changes of material occur at the page and system level. The drawing also shows that, as with most of Feldman’s late scores, the final manuscript page of String Quartet II is completely composed out (followed by a blank page of score cover) – the piece is over when the bottom of the page is reached, reinforcing the visual primacy of the page grid as a notational image within which the music sits. Furthermore, it can be argued that Zimmerman’s drawing is not only in itself a notational image of sorts, the notation being graphical as described above, but therefore a meta-notational image of String Quartet II.’ (T. Hall, ‘Notational Image, Transformation and the Grid’)

I think this idea of ‘notational image’ is related to Scalapino’s comments on structure without image and the notion of vacuum in The Book of Tea. The idea of the poem as an empty frame doesn’t mean that it has to be empty of content. Scalapino’s poetry, like Fisher’s and O’Hara’s, is made up of images, memories, thoughts. But she emphasises that images are never the thing they describe, any description is not the same as the thing itself.

In works such as New Time, Scalapino works with the line as paragraph with dashes in place of line breaks. She says she uses images, memories and thoughts to make a space, rather than as what the poem is about. The syntax of the thought or image as a shape. So image as content but also as ‘notational image’, as space and syntax-shape on the page: the image not resembling ‘reality’, but being ‘reality’.

  there’s still on the rim of night (having been in it) which is (in night) there as his horizontal lying rest in snow – breathing in breath ‘at’ the light day

  overwhelming the mark being ‘by’ his ‘action’ – there – only. one’s – only breathing in breath – not night or day.

  past cold, the man kneeling in snow – outside, one – which is horizontal waiting – in ‘falling snow’ overwhelming of the mark, the other being in it – only. as being the only overwhelming of rim.

  that he’s – ‘running’ – by being forward ‘lying’ which is waiting (outside): ‘by’ – on the ground in rim of snow dropping on sky and floor only.
(Scalapino, New Time)

‘Rim’, and ‘horizontal’ are recurring motifs in the poem, and Scalapino describes her paragraph-like lines as ‘like a rim’, ‘like the horizon’ (LINEbreak radio show, on PennSound). Many contradictory and incompatible elements are jammed together on this flattened plane. It seems similar to how she describes her book The Pearl: ‘Each line or paragraph is a frame, so that each action occurs in the moment… It “functions” as does a comic book – in being read’ (Scalapino, How phenomena appear to unfold). Scalapino frequently uses this analogy to the comic strip, as a popular genre using framing of text and image. In an analogous way, in her writing she frequently uses brackets and inverted commas to frame words, as if she is trying to denote the rim of experience, the edge of a thought or perception before it becomes conscious (‘perception “before” perception’, as Lyotard said of Cezanne).

While there are descriptive and narrative elements in New Time (night, snow, sky, the man, lying, breathing, running), Scalapino is aiming not to talk about thoughts or feelings or events so much as to use these things to make a space (or ‘an opening’ as she calls it). The line is kept at a taut, zen alertness that the description is not the thing itself, that any description is not being it (accompanied by a parallel awareness that the attempt to undo this illusory separation between description and being is also impossible).

‘I was trying to push to a place where time would in a sense collapse on itself, that it would be all in the same time, and that one would be able to be in a moment that, in a way, is all times at once. It’s almost like a burst of a place that is complete attention’
(Interview with Leslie Scalapino, University of Arizona Poetry Center Newsletter 22.1, Fall 1997).

Scalapino’s present-time terrain resembles Morton Feldman’s ‘memoryless’ architectures, who commented on Cezanne making an object not ‘in time or about time, but … as Time … Time as an image’, and described his own music as ‘time canvasses’ (Feldman, Between Categories).

Fisher’s 2018 book loggerheads (which I wrote about recently in an article in Junction Box) explores about how we construct memory spatially as memory rooms, architectures, patterns. In Black Pond, however, these structures break down in Alzheimer’s and dementia. In contrast to loggerheads’ mnemonic architecture, the spatial setting of Black Pond is a landscape of bogs, coasts, gulfs:

  • In Black Pond 7, Poem 1: ‘What in me dark alone in the bog sinking’
  • In 7.4, ‘A gulf profound as that Serbonian bog’; ‘through many a dark and dreary Vale / Rocks, Caves, Lakes, Fens, Bogs, Dens, and shades; ‘a dark / Illimitable Ocean without bound, / Without dimension’
  • 7.5: ‘The rising world of waters dark and deep, / Won from the void and formless infinite’
  • 7.7: ‘through the darksome pond / utter darkness, deep engulfed’ (cutting together two lines from Paradise Lost book 5)
  • 7.8: ‘the deep dark cabins of the head’ (interpolating Shakespeare, Venus and Adonis)
  • 7.10: ‘surging waves’ (evokes the ripples of neuronal assemblies); ‘those phosphoric bursts… the flame of passion’ (denotes the pond of neural chemicals: dopamine, noradrenaline, etc – also referenced in poem 11 ‘noradrenergic neurons’) ‘exhaling from darkness’ (echoes loggerheads: ‘runners exhaling / grey and blue air into / day ice’ and ‘Exhalation’ in Black Pond 7.13 – recurrent imagery of breath, mist, air and ice)
  • 7.11: ‘mist midnight vapour’
  • 7.13: ‘Vapour’, ‘Exhalation’, ‘Cloud’

Consciousness and environment are interconnected through metaphors of bodies of water: the peat bogs of Llangattock, the black pond of the surgical patient’s insides, the inky sea of Milton’s blindness.

Metaphors of bodies of water are also used by the neuroscientist Susan Greenfield. In A Day in the Life of A Brain, Greenfield proposes a model of brain function using the metaphor of a stone thrown into a puddle, where neuronal connections can be imagined as a stone, the neurotransmitter chemicals as the puddle and the ripples as consciousness.

Greenfield explains how neuronal assemblies in the brain are comparable to the ripples of a stone thrown into a pond. She associates larger neuronal assemblies with cognition, thinking, past-present-future, sense of self, sequential linkage. She associates smaller neuronal assemblies with sensation, feeling, here-and-now, lack of self-consciousness, lack of space-time frame of reference.

Larger assemblies of neuronal connectivity create patterns of connectedness: ‘by accessing your personalised neuronal connections, and thereby using your mind, you are able to appreciate the world beyond the face value of the senses… neuronal connectivity allows you to appreciate meaning and symbolism, to see one thing as standing for something else…’ (Greenfield). This neuronal connectivity allows us to appreciate meaning and symbolism – to see something as something else: to discern faces in clouds, attribute luckiness to an object, pairing two otherwise unrelated events as a sign or portent.

She explains how creativity deconstructs preexisting connectivity, then forms new associations and connections that give meaning. Disruptions to pattern and connectivity can be liberating, she says, in breaking down habitual patterns; however if there is no possibility of making new connections this can become frightening. Small assembly sizes are often associated with pleasure: ‘the experience of being a small child, living for the moment as the passive, unconditional and non-self-conscious recipient of your senses.’ But ‘pleasure turns to fear when we don’t know what will happen next: each moment becomes a fragmented and utterly unpredictable one-off’ (Greenfield).

Greenfield offers the comparison of two different kinds of small neuronal assemblies – a child’s brain and a brain suffering from dementia: ‘a critical factor that differentiates the dementing brain from the developing one is that, in the infant, the small assembly would be due to modest connectivity in the various target neuronal networks in the “higher” brain regions such as the prefrontal cortex, with the amine fountains working just fine, and perhaps excessively so. In contrast, in the degenerating brain, the modulating fountains could be thought of as drying up, even though the pre-existing neuronal connectivity can get along fine for a while… In other words, while the assemblies of childhood are small because the stone is small, the assemblies in dementia are small because the ripples cannot spread easily’ (Greenfield).

Poetry seems to work with small neuronal assemblies: Fisher and Scalapino’s strategies bring about a reduction in ‘meaning’, so that fragments become isolated, disconnected, highlighting the here-and-now sensory materiality of the words. In Black Pond, the fragments of Paradise Lost evoke the smaller neuronal assemblies of dementia and Alzheimer’s: stable pathways, assemblies and pre-existing connectivities fragment into collaged tangles; through parataxis and montage effects, the tracks become disrupted as tau detaches and forms into neurofibrillary tangles. This induces moments of breakdown in our personalised narrative, like walking into a room and forgetting why you went in there. In deconstructing pre-existing connectivity, it invites us to then form larger neuronal assemblies in tracing out connections, patterns, meaning, symbolism, as we read.

But what are these neuronal assemblies of reading like? In A Mathematical Theory of Communication, Claude Shannon uses Markov chains to model the transmission of information in a message.

Shorter Markov chains produce more unusual combinations of letters and words, while larger chains produce more legible combinations, because they reproduce more of the original source text in order. A zero-order chain is obtained by choosing all letters with the same probability and independently (i.e. ‘at random’, like picking them out of a bag). A first-order chain is obtained by choosing successive letters independently but each letter having the same probability that it has in the natural language. In a second-order chain, digram structure is introduced: after a letter is chosen, the next one is chosen in accordance with the frequencies with which the various letters follow the first one. In the third-order Markov chain, trigram structure is introduced: each letter is chosen with probabilities which depend on the preceding two letters. This can be continued for higher-order chains, as well as using words as the unit instead of letters, selecting each succeeding word based on the probability of the typical words that tend to follow it. Shorter Markov chains may be compared to smaller neuronal assemblies and longer Markov chains to larger neuronal assemblies: when reading a text generated by a low-order Markov chain, it feels nonsensical because the letters and words arise with little memory of what has gone before; when reading a text generated by higher-order Markov chains, it feels more coherent because the text has a longer memory of the letters and words that arose previously.

It might be said that larger assemblies have higher redundancy, while smaller assemblies have higher entropy. Shannon gives two extreme examples in Basic English and Finnegans Wake:

‘The ratio of the entropy of a source to the maximum value it could have while still restricted to the same symbols will be called its relative entropy. This is the maximum compression possible when we encode into the same alphabet. One minus the relative entropy is the redundancy. The redundancy of ordinary English, not considering statistical structure over greater distances than about eight letters, is roughly 50%. This means that when we write English half of what we write is determined by the structure of the language and half is chosen freely…

‘Two extremes of redundancy in English prose are represented by Basic English and by James Joyce’s book Finnegans Wake. The Basic English vocabulary is limited to 850 words and the redundancy is very high. This is reflected in the expansion that occurs when a passage is translated into Basic English. Joyce on the other hand enlarges the vocabulary and is alleged to achieve a compression of semantic content. The redundancy of a language is related to the existence of crossword puzzles. If the redundancy is zero any sequence of letters is a reasonable text in the language and any two-dimensional array of letters forms a crossword puzzle. If the redundancy is too high the language imposes too many constraints for large crossword puzzles to be possible’ (Shannon).

A lot of the meaning or information in our communication then is conveyed by typical patterns, or pre-existing connectivity. Basic English has higher redundancy of words, many of them do not carry meaning; on the other hand, Joyce’s Finnegans Wake has higher entropy in that every word is overdetermined with multiple meanings, every letter dense with information. Entropy makes it unpredictable and open to interpretation.

In classical physics there is a separation of information and environment, but this breaks down in thermodynamics, where having information is shown to have physical consequences: you can extract work from physical objects depending on what you know about them. Thermodynamics, like quantum mechanics, highlights the extent to which information and environment are interweaved. As Scalapino pointed out, the image is not the thing itself, and is not just a description of reality, these language units are themselves physical objects, spaces, in the reality. Information does not only describe the physical world, it is already part of it (Wojciech Zurek, The Physics of Information). 

This is evident in Poem 12 of Black Pond 7, where Milton’s line from Paradise Lost Book 7, ‘this delicious grove, / This garden’, transforms into ‘this delicious cortical garden’, highlighting the connection of mind and matter: nervous system as ecosystem, ecosystem as nervous system. This notion is reinforced in the closing passage of Black Pond 7:

deep neural networks erased
entire biomes crash whole ecosystems
an ambient hum of guilt, easily faded
overcome the partition of the sensible
a vibrant materialism of transmitter agency
a depth of stones, ores, atmospheres, humans
tasked to prevent future intrusion into the subterrane. (Black Pond 7.14)

At the end of this passage, Fisher references the ‘vibrant materialism’ of Jane Bennett. Her book A Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things calls for us to recognise the active participation of nonhuman forces in events, describing a ‘vital materiality’ that runs through and across bodies, both human and nonhuman. The mind as a material, the environment as a nervous system.

Black Pond 7.12, continues ‘From darkness In this delicious cortical garden / this basin of attraction deep spontaneity / contrasts persistent shallows’. The imagery of depth and shallowness of basins of attraction relates to Greenfield’s notions of neuronal assemblies. Basins of attraction, also known as attractors, are models used in mathematics and physics to describe certain patterns of behaviour into which systems tend fall. Geological basins may be home to rivers or lakes, while manmade basins such as drainage basins or canal basins may hold water. There are wet ponds known as retention basins and dry ponds known as detention basins. There are oceanic basins and tidal basins. We also have wash basins and toilet basins. In terms of neuronal networks, deeper basins of attraction indicate more stable states, deeper-set chreods of habit, while shallower basins are associated with here-and-now, spur-of-the-moment actions.

In this sense, it at first appears oxymoronic that the poem refers to ‘deep spontaneity’ – we might assume that spontaneity would be characterized by the here-and-now experience of shallow basins – but perhaps the spontaneity Fisher is describing does necessitate deeper attractors; it is what he refers to later in the same poem as ‘inventive memory’ (‘trammed in the boxset’).

In his book, Imperfect Fit, Fisher argues that ‘When pragmatic activity shifts towards a negentropic result, the aesthetic function begins to dominate.’ Correspondingly, Kakuzō describes Teaism as ‘a worship of the Imperfect, as it is a tender attempt to accomplish something possible in this impossible thing we know as life’ (The Book of Tea).

Kakuzō says the tea-room is ‘an ephemeral structure built to house a poetic impulse… It is an Abode of the Unsymmetrical inasmuch as it is consecrated to the worship of the Imperfect, purposely leaving something unfinished for the play of the imagination to complete.’ It allows for an amount of entropy, uncertainty.

The suggestiveness of imperfect fits supplies an amount of entropy to the observer (viewer/reader). Engagement with the work, participation via looking, reading, thinking, is negentropic. Poetry breaks our habitual connections, increasing entropy, in order to incite our minds to make new connections and reduce the entropy. As Fisher explains:

‘Human activity is in continual flux exemplified by our so called short and long term memories, retention of experience, retrieval of thought, loss of memory, trauma, and recovery… all experience, existence, and memory involves loss, that is it involves damage.’

‘necessity of damage as part of a transformatory process to combat entropy.’

‘Connections are made by the brain to subvert this entropy.’

Yet ‘Damage, which may include the introduction of mistakes and humour, promotes the proposal that connections in the brain can lead to negative as easily as positive effects.’

‘renewal has the potential for negentropy, that is, against one of the laws of thermodynamics, the natural expectation of aging, the loss of brain cells.’ (Fisher, Imperfect Fit)