REVIEW: The Invention of Glass, Emmanuel Hocquard

Canarium Press, 2012

Translated by Cole Swensen and Rod Smith

Review by Brett DeFries

Since the early eighties, Emmanuel Hocquard has enjoyed a long and impressive list of translators into English, including Michael Palmer, Lydia Davis, Norma Cole, and Rosmarie and Keith Waldrop. Now, with his 2003 collection, THE INVENTION OF GLASS, recently out from Canarium Books in its first English printing, that list includes Cole Swensen and Rod Smith, both influential poets and editors in the American post L-A-N-G-U-A-G-E scene. Like his earlier collections, THE INVENTION OF GLASS is highly philosophical and e(al)lusive, and though concept remains integral to THE INVENTION, so too remains the lyric. To prevent any unnecessary confusion, though, about its being, the book's back cover reveals exactly what it is:

This is a narrative that tries to explain and to crystalize (the fourth state of water) a situation that has not yet been clarified. Under the guise of memory's particular logic, its play of facets turns to fiction because its sense takes shape only as a series of grammatical phrases unfolds, fusing shadows and blind spots. And yet, like glass, which is a liquid, the poem is amorphous. It streams off in all directions, but reflects nothing. What is the meaning of blue? No one needs to interrogate the concept of blue to know what it means.

However koan-like this passage may be, it matches the structure of THE INVENTION, which divides into three sections: POEM (itself divided into twenty sections of 48 lines each), STORY (also divided into 20 prose sections, each serving as lyric NOTES to a corresponding POEM section and comprised of both original writing and excerpts from outside sources), and finally NOTES, which provides full citations for STORY quotations. Put more simply, what we have is a gradual movement toward the bedrock of one of Hocquard's primary interests: the relationship between subject and object. The book begins with subjective utterances in POEM, continues with quotations and brief passages, which place the utterances in their dialectical context, and finally we end with the source of the source, the 'other' author in Hocquard's dialectic, who remains importantly separate from the text itself. Of course this backward sourcing takes place on present's still but forward arrow, and the more it seems to hurtle, the more we have behind us to source. It's a tautologous oscillation, and I'm guessing that tautology is what Hocquard means by "memory's particular logic."

Because its logic is time's logic, this book is also a narrative. That is, the book is the documentation of a process, in time, that turns to fiction, as true invention, on utterance:

This path came out of the ground under the feet of animals. Now it's an avenue. (THE INVENTION OF GLASS, pp. 54-5)

The ground is not a path unless there are feet above it. If the path is under cars, then it is not a path but an avenue. A note in STORY, quoting Gilles A. Tiberghien, explains that "Roads in the United States often follow old Indian paths, but this is also true of certain city streets. Broadway is the best known example" (100). Now we have the story of an interplay between the past and present of a place (Broadway), which "is not the one you saw here yesterday, but is exactly the same as it" (Wittgenstein, quoted in STORY on p. 103). Like Witgenstein's later work, this book spends much of its time clarifying how we use language, and here Hocquard reminds us with Wittgenstein that meaning emerges from context, which determines the words we use, and how we use them.

Learning what makes this book a narrative also gets us closer to understanding Hocqard's interest in subject and object, and the gap between meaning and void—a gap which some might say shrinks as the shadow of Wittgenstein grows. Here's a long passage from section four of POEM:

When one speaks of water, subject and object form in the phrases. [...] There is an abyss. Poetry does not speak of the world. World is a word that flaunts itself in order to be. The middle road is an odd place and it would be wrong to take the tepid for the wise. Given that a phrase is always clear ctenaire by analogy: one no longer wants to be defined. To say the spoken is within the speaking is to take the void's measure. Wanted or not he contrives to spread doubt across the land. Adventure also carries this risk. After the war a child bit into a glass. The parallel escapes no one. It has no exit. [...] I eat an orange. For the record, Robert S. W. Sikorski (grandson of the general who gave their name to the helicopters) wrote that one-line poem which is no small contribution to our understanding of citrus fruits. And so, a series of decisive encounters that makes vertigo switch sides. (21-4)

There is a lot to pick apart here. As the back cover says, "[the poem] streams off in all directions, but reflects nothing." It seems to me, though, that two broad sides get represented here. The first side (the Idealists), responding to meaning's contingency, "contrives to spread doubt across the land" and takes the world not on its own terms (whatever that means), but simply (or not so simply) as a word, beating its chest for chimerical authority. The second side (the Realists?) "[bites] into a glass" and counts the broken tooth as evidence for a rule—given a context, Hocquard might remind them. About what happens when biting on (hardened) glass, there is little room for doubt. Too, this second side, when asked "What is an orange," responds "I eat an orange," and calls that—for every day meaning and use—good enough. Hocquard seems sympathetic to both sides, but he also seems unwilling to compromise: "The middle road / is an odd place / and it would be wrong to take / the tepid for the wise." But there is finally a third strand at play, which makes space for a new position, and that is the "decisive encounter," the collision of an I and a you; a subject and an object; a one and an other.

If there must be feet to form a path, then there must be an encounter between ground and feet. THE INVENTION OF GLASS is all about these encounters, encounters that paradoxically and by their very grammar (I (subject) eat an orange (object)) are required for their constituent parts (subject and object) to have sense. "It's the traveler / that makes the region visible," says Hocquard, and then, in the corresponding STORY entry, quotes a passage in Wittgenstein about whether one can be sure one is in England, when one is in fact in England (75). What interests me more than the passage he quotes, though, is the passage immediately following, which closes the enquiry:

Then why don't I simply say with Moore "I know that I am in England"? Saying this is meaningful in particular circumstances, which I can imagine. But when I utter the sentence outside these circumstances, as an example to shew that I can know truths of this kind with certainty, then it at once strikes me as fishy.—Ought it to? (On Certainty, §423)

Note that Wittgenstein doesn't deny our understandable inclination to reach out of our frame and into some metaphysical absolute of certainty. Instead, he says such reaching strikes him as fishy. Why, I imagine him (and Hocquard) asking, are we dissatisfied with simply observing our being in England and then moving on without irritable reaching after some extra stamp of metaphysical facticity? For Hocquard, it's fishy for the Idealist to earnestly doubt whether she is in England, such that it prevents her from functioning there. We must be able to trust our encounters, to believe in an other. Similarly, though, it is fishy for the Realist to say "No, seriously, I am REALLY in England," while stomping her foot on British soil. Instead, Hocquard says "the didactic takes / off from the everyday / and leads to a marvelous / vision" (75-6). We learn by observing the same way we always do, and the vision that results is singularly marvelous and not 'minimal,' as the accusation often goes. Pounding one's foot and caps locking REALLY adds nothing but theater, which is interesting and terrific, but has little to add to the grammar of location.

I would say Hocqard lays out a contingent meaning, but that is a tautology. How could we say there is any other kind? Really what he does is clarify the language of meaning. Meaning emerges from the decisive encounter and is killed with an excess of philosophy. "Toss the pebbles in a bowl / color appears in the water," says Hocquard in theory of tables. "Don't sort out I and you / don't sort out blue and Aegean Sea" (3). To sort them out is to do away with them, such that 'them' or even 'each' becomes nonsense. That Hocquard actually performs this subject/object dialectic with his poem/story structure is truly a remarkable achievement and strikes a meaningful glow into even the smallest, most mundane detail in this book. To bite on glass and form a universal rule based on that experience is to forget that glass is also liquid and at another time might encase the teeth in glowing liquid sand. Glass is amorphous, like the poem, whose being depends on an other (flame to glass) no less than the other depends on the subject. THE INVENTION OF GLASS, then, begins as a book of logic but, through attention, and without saying so, becomes a book on ethics—fluid, like glass smiling.

Works Cited:

Hocquard, Emmanuel. THE INVENTION OF GLASS. Trans. Rod Smith and Cole Swensen. Ann Arbor: Canarium Books, 2012.

Wittgenstein, Ludwig. On Certainty. Ed. G. E. M. Anscombe and G.H. von Wright. Trans. Denis Paul and G. E. M. Anscombe. New York: Harper & Row, 1969. p. 54