To begin with a paradox: a slab, an opaque thing of considerable mass and density, when made of words provides an opening through which we can catch a view of a unique sensibility moving through the world as the world moves through it. The sensibility is that of New York writer Randee Silv, and the slabs are the compact verbal objects she calls wordslabs. A wordslab is a kind of quasi-narrative, hybrid of prose and poetry that fits the condensed and mutable language and imagery of the latter into the regular periodic structures of the former. These sentences are gathered together into blocks—slabs--that Silv arranges on the page as if composing a painting out of masses of plastic forms. They are visual as well as verbal objects, intended to make an impression on the eye as well as the ear. But they are slabs as well because they seem to want to be read as units, as miniature quasi-narratives complete in themselves.
Silv’s choice of the quasi-narrative as an encompassing form brings into sharp focus the wordslabs’ function as fields of semantic tension and ambiguity. She borrows from prose the convention that the shape of the line follows the thought it carries, and puts that convention to an essentially poetic use by letting the thought follow wherever logical, analogical, or purely imaginative impulses take it. Through the resulting vicissitudes, the wordslabs nevertheless retain their formal integrity as prose-like constructions. Consider “Roughhews”:
Roughhews: Pungent disinterest never promised
much to begin with anyway. Umpteen wherewithals
churn into glossy voiceovers hidden behind moth
eaten antics. Doubled grasps seduce circularity on
russet sidewalks. Prolonged influx. Clogged. Hedged.
Simmering flares submerged in camouflaged secrecy.
Replantings & quickenings & preambled tidal pools
reroute despite vine clad murmurs. Hardcore
headstrong cringes search madly for jettied burrows
idle slack. Blistery aromas. Lush vacated eternities
weigh unmoved. Straddling throngs of dents. Of nicks.
Barely seen foliage takes a morning plunge.
The main point of tension here as in the other wordslabs is the contradiction that runs beneath these grammatically plausible but semantically improbable sentences and fragments. The wordslab retains its formal integrity as a prose-like construction, but nevertheless contains a series of pivots of denotative and connotative force within and between lines. The facts it communicates are facts that carry no factual reality, at least not in the everyday world. The world of the wordslabs reveals itself to be a world among possible worlds that is recognizably ours, but one in which an arational logic breaks through the mundane surface.
In “Drenched,” that world takes on uncannily dreamlike features:
Drenched: I was rushing somewhere. Shouts from a
megaphone could be heard. They were not in
agreement. They were not going to relocate. Others just
sat. A few argued in
silence. He came towards me. I
couldn’t miss him. He put his face close to mine with a
cupped palm and mumbled that his contractor had
gone bankrupt. Nobody noticed him slipping out. He’d
simply put on his street clothes and walked off carrying
some magazines with a novel tucked under his arm. No
one followed. No one came after him. Seeing how easy it
was he knew he should’ve done it sooner. He said he
only had nightmares when he was up. When he’s
sleeping he’s fine. I was in a pine forest, barefoot.
Moonlight. Streetlights. I was pressing a doorbell but
then I wasn’t. I did what the wind did. But it didn’t stop
the sounds, not the ones I thought I was hearing but the
ones that hadn’t yet come. I started whistling. Throat
dry. I stood out in the rain with my mouth wide open.
This has the appearance of a dream narrative, but the shift from the third person to the first person perspective leaves us wondering: whose dream is this? Is the “I” in the pine forest the same person as the “he” who only has nightmares while waking? Is this a waking nightmare? An unconnected dream? Or a recollection of something that really happened? Does the moonlight suddenly become streetlights, or was it streetlights mistaken for moonlight, or were they co-present all along? And how did streetlights end up in a pine forest, if indeed that is where they were? We don’t know, but in this world actions start and stop, perceptions bleed into each other, and it all ends up with the speaker open-mouthed in the rain. The only constant here is metamorphosis, as it is throughout Nextness. Yet even so, Silv leaves us with provisional points of equilibrium where sentences and sentence fragments coalesce into local pools of narrative continuity. It is when they link up into larger units that they show themselves to have semantically leaky seams. Here, for instance, is “Traps”:
Traps: Mud. Rubbish. Dirt. Souvenirs can always be bought.
Inventions can always be invented. Appearances penetrate
high up on the hill. A square, a rectangle, pose the same
vertical cut short. Twisted wire blackboard ramblings bake
into ticking pendulums swallowed by chatterings left to
graze at a distance. Eruptions overflow as promised. Ousting
gravity soothes sluggish intent. Flashbacks unreliable. She
asked if silence was accurate. Courtyards. Woodsheds. I
The opening, one-word statements hang together as a description of a particularly uninviting place. The next three sentences are semantically self-contained aphorisms that connect to each other with open joints, while the rest of the wordslab drifts further into an associative logic that somehow circles back to the kind of laconic description with which it began. We may have ended up where we started, but have been changed along the way as the wordslab opens up a field of semantic play in which images and fragments of description rub up against each other in imaginatively catalytic ways. In fact one of the most striking qualities of Silv’s wordslabs is the ease with which they move from one image, observation, or assertion to another, in long chains of associations conveying direct and indirect news of sensations, perceptions, recollections, assertions, reflections, speculation, and more. For example, "Nextness" presents a simultaneity of multiple aural, visual, and kinetic stimuli which provoke reflection and a final ironic shrug to see them off:
Nextness: Knowingly destined to change only
slight, she / like them, stark, firm / takes just
seconds in the elevator. Earsplitting thunder
scrambles parched systems stashed into
discolored heaps, pushing & pulling more than
can be blotted. Rehearsals of squatting. Of
hauling. Amplified. Cursed. Vice versa. She
didn’t know why. Rolling and rolling. Hardly a
lapse. Hardly a breath. Locked stares rival
replacements. Silhouettes coated with red
marrow revert to a rising current. Encores.
There always are. Too many forevers you can’t
pierce. Violent, violet, it doesn’t seem to
The ironic close of "Nextness" hints at the persistent, minor-key humor that runs throughout the collection, often revealing itself in a subtle sense of the incongruities of the mundane. Like Surrealist humour noir, but without the latter’s streak of cruelty, Silv’s wordslabs record unexpected eruptions of contradictions within the real which reverse or invert what we take to be the normal or natural order of things, in the end producing an ironic recognition that disarms the real or cuts it down to size. We may find that “The day was acting somewhat normal until the phone rang” ("Unsuspected"), or be informed that “Lying down in flawed remainders is no excuse. More is not more” ("Unsavory"), or that “You can’t erase turning too soon by walking in front”("Blending"). Silv’s off-center aphorisms and adages of anti-wisdom find their counterpart in deadpan observations of the obvious: “People eat and drink at different speeds” ("Territories").
But it can also be driven by language, which she deforms through grammatical undecidability. “Verifying dismissed declines,” for example, could be a string of three verbs in different tenses and forms, or a gerundive, adjective, and noun, or any mix-and-match combination; the title of the wordslab “Ceiving” separates the kernel meaning “take” from the prefixes “de-,” “re-,” “per-,” etc. that would fix its meaning, leaving it an ironic marker of uncertainty.
Through its humor, through the supramundane logic of its quasi-narratives, Nextness unfolds like the graphic record of an instrument measuring vibrations in the environment, but here the vibrations being measured are those of a mind both responding to and projecting itself onto the world around it in real time, as would happen in a freely improvised musical performance. Which in the end, these wordslabs resemble. Like improvised music, Silv’s writing is an exploratory setting out that shapes itself through the accretions and shifts in course that occur as language-driven decisions accumulate and feed back on themselves, culminating in the poetic transubstantiation of prosaic things and events.
More samples of Silv's writing:
Unsuspected: Plot: continual. Rising action.
Downward action. Climax mundane. It was hard to
know what he was weighing. Instinct. Passion.
Delirium. Twirling pushed him forward. They gawked
at him — the shadows that lived on the street — as
he mimicked them in flight. “Stifling and revolting”
they must’ve heard him say. I sat by the pond and
counted ducks, quivers, brisk steps. He’d been told
that his father was her father although it might’ve
been a lie. The day was acting somewhat normal until
the phone rang. Frantic. Racing. Guesses jagged. Each
more certain. Each more potent. They knew it to be tr
ue. There’d be a record, an investigation. Arousing
false flaws might dangerously incite madness. He’d
seen this all before. He held back from asking it but
then he did. No closer to knowing. There would be a
lot of waiting. A heart is not like a box.
and unfolds. He said that the clouds hadn’t settled yet and
the sky, the sky didn’t know what shade of blue to be.
Unsavory: Rippling labyrinths. Babbling dilemmas.
Lying down on flawed remainders is no excuse. More is
not more. The noise out there is getting louder. Slip-
ups. U-turns. After-turns. Chapter after chapter. It goes
by so recklessly, so obtrusively. Contrasts negate
likeness. Likenesses become sameness. Desire
fulminates toward disdain. Built-in turnings. Penned-in
inertia. Farewells carry lanterns with parrots instead
of flames. Flaunting. Parading. Vice versa. A single dot.
It seems that they didn’t get the same instructions.
Blending: A chill. A marbled alcove. A slight rotating
glimpse floats and evaporates as they enter before
exiting. Thin folds pinned behind glass. A lull settles
into an unevenness of crisp grays draped and veiled
with inverted orchestration. Breaks in notations never
hurried. Inward attentions inexhaustible. I do not
argue. Someone is sinking but I don’t see them. Left
edge. In. Right. Out. I re-walk with brief winding
nonchalantly. Lengthiness concise with recorded
widths. A hand lifts. A hand falls. Counting segments
worthless. A long cloth is tearing inside 1000 boxes.
His. Mine. Pile up. Flash, mirror. Topple. Falter.
Unceremonious blue streaks cross. I reach the end not
finished. I re-walk between second growth and open
meadow. Eight dead birds rotting in sand surrounded
by sticks to bury deeper. You can’t erase turning too
soon by walking in front. Lost once. Twice. A blinding
glare bellowed before reclining. Outpourings,
Territories: Planned measured delivered. Bending
shifting shocking. Attending blanking scrubbed. You
could feel the crispness of consuming and the
distraction of error. He talked about replication. She
talked about unsealing. He stepped. He stepped. He
paused. He hadn’t gotten very far. She recited a section
about constant leaving. She rejected modular vulgarity.
Slippages details modification. Filtering reducing
calculating. People eat and drink at different speeds.
Square table with a manuscript. They rested
bewilderedly detached. Divvying erasing proclaiming.
Everyone carries something different. Everyone
everyone everyone. There I said it. Delays. They do
more than hold us up. She combs his hair ever so
gently. Recounting memories. We all do it. Locating
whereabouts. We all do that too. I thought about asking
her where she was. His liquored breath complimented
mine. Two helicopters against a white paper napkin. I
heard her crying as I left. A tangled mess. Slightly
changed. He chops. I disregard.
Daniel Barbiero is a writer, double bassist, and composer in the Washington DC area. He writes on the art, music and literature of the classic avant-gardes of the 20th century as well as on contemporary work, and is the author of the essay collection As Within, So Without.. Website: danielbarbiero.wordpress.com