Marjorie Perloff: ON "The Chinese Notebook"

In his manifesto-essay "The New Sentence," Ron Silliman envisions a paragraph that might organize sentences even as a stanza organizes lines: it would function as "a unity of quantity, not logic or argument," the sentences within its "frame" relating to one another not by normal continuity but by a complex system of polysemic and syllogistic relationships (91). In this scheme of things, individual units (at the sentence or phrase level) that seem to make no sense may take on meaning by contiguity And Silliman quotes Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations ("New Sentence" 70):

498. When I say that the orders "Bring me sugar" and "Bring me milk" make sense, but not the combination "Milk me sugar," that does not mean that the utterance of this combination has no effect. And if its effect is that the other person stares at me and gapes, I don't on that account call it the order to stare and gape, even if that was precisely the effect I wanted to produce.

499. To say "This combination of words makes no sense" excludes it from the sphere of language and thereby bounds the domain of language. But when one draws a boundary it may be for various kinds of reasons. If I surround an area with a fence or a line or otherwise, the purpose may be to prevent someone from getting in or out; but it may also be part of a game and the players be supposed, say, to jump over the boundary; or it may shew where the property of one man ends and that of another begins and so on. So if I draw a boundary line that is not yet to say what it is for.

It is not surprising that this passage appeals to Silliman, whose own poetry, whether in verse or prose, has been committed to testing the boundary between the "sense" of "Bring me sugar" and the "nonsense" of "Milk me sugar." "The Chinese Notebook," which appears in The Age of Huts (1986), is a sequence of 223 aphorisms, most of them on questions of language and poetics, that sometimes echo, sometimes gently spoof the Philosophical Investigations. For example:

29. Mallard, drake--if the words change, does the bird remain?

35. What now? What new? All these words turning in on themselves like the concentric layers of an onion.

60. Is it language that creates categories? As if each apple were a proposed definition of a certain term.

94. What makes me think that form exists?

And so on. The poet Alan Davies, who is a friend of Silliman's, recalls that "one morning . . . I received from Ron a lovely chinese notebook. . . . I read the text enthusiastically. I was impressed by the number of interrogatives in the work. My own tendency has often been to suppress questions and, where they did occur, to end them with a period. I knew that I would make my most considered response to the text by answering each of the questions in it" ("?s" 77). Here are Davies's responses, appearing in the text "?s to .s: for Ron Silliman and for The Chinese Notebook," in Signage (1987):

29. Ask the bird.

35. Unpeel the onion a layer at a time; at center, the still point.

60. Categories create categories; language gets used, again, again.

94. Having the thought that form exists, you have the fact that it does.

This operation, seeming to prove itself, supports itself.

The question-answer format (unanticipated by Silliman when he wrote "The Chinese Notebook") generates a witty homage to Wittgenstein, Davies's text depending on Silliman's even as Silliman's is most effective when read against Wittgenstein's.