Here is my all too inadequate introduction for Thalia Field, who performed with an ensemble including Jena Osman this past weekend at SEGUE series. Reading Field's work last week got me thinking again about exactly what we mean when we call poetry (or anything for that matter) "experimental." Likewise, I was sent back to other poetries which incorporate both essay, play, and 'thought experiment' into a verse-like mood of texture. Zukofsky's Bottom: on Shakespeare; many of Susan Howe's poems and essays; Rosmarie Waldrop's lovely essay, "Alarums and Excursions" among others....
For over a decade Thalia Field has been providing us with a literature at the boundaries of poetry, theatre, fiction, philosophy, and essay. Through her work genre and disciplinary boundaries become confused to say the least. More accurately, we might say that the confusion of genre, discipline, and field gives way to a more holistic and open investigation of thought through a writing practice.
As such, Field takes up the work of a truly “experimental” literary genealogy, one which recalls essayists such as Montaigne and Emerson, but perhaps finds most of its purchase in a heuristic approach to composition which grew out of early modernism, and continues to this day. In Field’s most recent book Bird Lovers, Backyard (New Directions, 2010) she evokes an experimentalist genealogy through the controversial figure of ethologist Konrad Lorenz, whose essentialist views about animal behavior coupled with Nazi sympathizing reflect what is troubling about anthropomorphic approaches to animal biology. Through Bird Lovers, Backyard, Field proves that writing can problematize methods of experimentation extended historically and laterally from the natural sciences.
In another book published by Field this past year, A Prank of Georges (Essay Press, with Abigail Lang), Field and her co-author take up Gertrude Stein as a kind of muse. This is fitting given Stein’s dual backgrounds in experimental psychology/neurobiology and literature/visual art. The title of the book comes from a line of Stein’s, “Prank could be called George if one were used to it but one is not,” and the book indeed is a prank if we think about a prank being related to grotesque and harlequinry (two genres Field draws upon throughout her work).
There are so many things to recommend about A Prank of Georges, which weaves a tissue of quotations from various strands of philosophical, literary, scientific, and etymological texts in order to explore the function of naming for construing and constructing identity—a problem which obviously fascinated Stein from The Making of Americans until her late works about fame and celebrity. What is striking about the use of quotation in this book is how unique quotations become like players in a dialogue—speaking their lines, performing certain actions; acting!
The directness (and direction) of this discursus I find attractive and true to Field’s and Lang’s muse who through composition as explanation was able to grasp philosophical difficulties associatively, synaesthetically, and emotionally, finding form in apparent chaos, performing witz through structural adequacies. What if the essay was just a matter of sequencing, editing, design—many of the movements from A Prank of Georges seem to ask? What if what we called “poetry” demarcated the ‘text’ after a discursive scaffolding had been removed?
In Field’s writing thesis disappears giving way to what the writer, in the spirit of Stein’s death bed repartee, calls “an ecology of questions.” A Prank of Georges, like so many works by Field, brings us closer to thinking in its state of flux, movement; as it is forming and deformational (monstrous, sublime). In which we see, and feel demonstrably, thought taking shape, as a kind of extensive dramatic action among the literal letters. Letters as actors, as players.