I had my wisdom teeth removed the day before my 17th birthday. When I returned home, I was propped upright in bed and given my birthday present, a thick omnibus of Philip K. Dick novels– Ubik and something else and The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, which I began reading right away. I was laughing when I started, but not when I finished.
I couldn’t tell you today what The Three Stigmata was about, and actually I probably couldn’t have told you half an hour after finishing it. Part of this would’ve been the painkillers, of course, but part of it would’ve been Dick’s famously impressionistic style of nervously high-concept sci-fi, a style which is maybe done an injustice whenever it’s studied not on painkillers. My other birthday present that year, a side-effect of the oral surgery, was an extra day off on the other end of the long Columbus Day weekend, which I spent in bed vaguely terrified, periodically frozen in worry about how time existed and what the fuck I could do about it.
It remains one of the most visceral reading experiences of my life, one which I didn’t really expect to experience again, which I really did not expect to experience again lying sober in the sunshine in Clark Park reading poetry, but here comes kathryn l. pringle’s dizzying, suffocating, brilliant fault tree, and here I go again after it into awed uncertainty, a dream-like confusion— “the moment was like falling asleep. Sometimes I think I am asleep. But for the sleep’s duration…”—at once conspiratorial and blaring.
you have to be careful who you tell
because you tell and tell
you never stop telling
fault tree is a narrative—kind of—about time—kind of—and about memory—kind of—and about forgetting—kind of—and about creation. Kind of. Its speaker fluctuates between identities (I think) and is unsure itself about where its subjectivity lands from one section to another. It restlessly constitutes its own audience, and tells us how we listen to it, and how we’re created for the listening.
the noises I made begat matter
atoms accumulated from within
a perforation appearing, i,
wrenched in pain, spoke words
each one dropping from my new hole
Like a Dick protagonist, pringle’s speaker is suspended between a mastery over demiurgic, material poesis and the steady dissolution of identity. Speech is mastered sure, but what good does that do anybody in the context of grotesque being? There’s a bathos of the sort that Dick (himself shuttled back and forth between abject paranoia and virtuosity) specialized in—one in which the relationship between creating and being created is monitored, medicated, measured by obscure powers. It’s scary shit! And pringle’s evocation, in fault tree’s third section, of the speaker powerless and institutionalized, is genuinely chilling in a way that not much contemporary poetry attains to—in terms of legit shuddering metaphysical horror maybe on the same choppy plane as Hopkins at his most despairing.
the company transitioned
us into robots
that isn’t my blood
this act of breathing is a felony without aid
each night: dark. and we sleep like birds
we wake long enough
to be treated [in proper dosage] by the hour
95% of living is lived in quiet
it is hard to observe
a device around my ear somehow
the volume (do not trust any device, he says)
There’s a part in The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch I remember well enough that, sitting here in a bookshop with a newer, slicker edition of the novel next to me, I can pick it up and find it within a minute or two:
“’Yes,’ she said. ‘The cat was not the steak. But the cat might be a manifestation which the steak was taking at that moment. The key word happens to be is. Don’t tell us, Barney, that whatever entered Palmer Eldritch is God, because you don’t know that much about Him; no one can. But that living entity from intersystem space may, like us, be shaped in His image. A way He selected of showing Himself to us. If the map is not the territory, the pot is not the potter. So don’t talk ontology, Barney; don’t say is.’”
The capital horror in fault tree is precisely that trap of “is.” How to resist it without articulating it? How to fight it when its means of disavowal are predicated by and within it?
If fault tree is almost a sci-fi novel in verse, it’s because its bad guys are too abstract, its struggles too implicated and implicating for continuity and the reassuring shape of prose blocks. pringle quotes from Shusaku Arakawa and Madeline Gins:
“an ethics that permits no category of event, not even mortality, to be set apart for special treatment, and that considers there to be nothing more unethical that we are required to be mortal shall be called a crisis ethics.”
Dicks, like pringle, wants to write the story in which being is the antagonist—in which language’s immanence in speaking bodies is not only unethical but monstrous, not just monstrous but, well, creepy. But how to overthrow being in form? How to speak down bodies existing in space as a speaking body existing in space (“this act of breathing is a felony without aid)? Discontinuity, slippage, deferral can only defer so far.
In other words, per Heidegger, is language is the house we live in, what to do when that house becomes a jail?
From Dick’s VALIS: “The universe is information and we are stationary in it, not three-dimensional and not in space of time. The information fed to us we hypostatize into the phenomenal world.”
but we imagine
it is of words
if time is the position of hands
simultaneity’s body is wracked
an imperceptible equating of breah
an outside of words
the i entity so creates escape
artifacts between us make space
echo articulation / / reflection
the present writer speaks silence
a synthetic permutation of erasure
what what what what what what what
what what what what what what what
my first doctor diagnosed me with
paralyzed will and dread.
One of pringle’s speakers—or some aspect of her only speaker—a soldier, a coward, dropping cigarettes into the ocean—quotes Pascal in the middle of a long anecdote about wartime, before an extended sequence in which death is escaped due to a slight ambiguity in language, a minor tic of verbal indecision:
This is space that is neither God nor creature, neither body nor mind, nor substance, nor accident, which transmits light without being transparent, resists without resistance, which is stationary and travels by tube, which is everywhere and nowhere, who does everything and does nothing: is is the admirable qualities of the empty space as an area, and it is and does wonders, as empty, and it is does nothing, as an area, it is long, wide and deep, as vacuum, it excludes the length, width and depth. If necessary, I will show all these nice properties, in consequence of the empty space.
Dick and pringle both make the idea of empty space heroic—of a null-space in physics where affect might dance around and goad cause, precede cause, escape cause. If nothing can break her speaker out from language and being, then nothing might have to do as protagonist.
last night I was shot through the head
three times clean through
and then the heart
but the sponsors have made a huge stink and we are to be at the studio
in approximately 33 minutes—and you are in yr boxers—you must be
conniving with those legs of yours
this is the PAST we are in the PAST and in the PAST I am alive
they slit my throat, too
Such that causality becomes one more earmark of the mediated body made visible through the tropes of science fiction, along with the fantastically cybernetic body, the fantastically administrated body.
the snow fell up to thirty inches, melted ten, and then we had ice
my transistor was hemorrhaging
exposed wires bleeding
giving off heat
in the form of steam
i’m inclined to say that the wires were bleeding yellow and green ooze
but it was really blood like any other kind of blood. which is to say it was
When pringle’s speaker commits itself to continuity long enough to approach anecdote, it talks about contingency, chance. Escapes and retreats it hasn’t earned. Because it had to speak the text of the page, it escaped to speak the text of the page—the universe refolding and re-organizing itself around the necessity of the surviving subject. That’s not an occasion to be grateful, though, so much as an admission of culpability–
the words were elements
each atom making up the word was the word itself
so if one spewed of hate
one built hate
and if another spewed of immobility
one was static
i spewed time
and time became itself.
fault tree’s conception of time is one of performativity and provisionality, a time not only reckoned and quantified socially, but sustained through concentrated mimesis. In this case, her closest analogue is not necessarily Dick but Stacy Doris, whose masterpiece Kildare similarly constructs a world in which slapstick physics and jittery temporality are the vehicle for prolonged ontological terror, and whose final book, fledge, presents a lush but difficult-to-navigate world where the divisions between bodies and subjects are half-tormented, half-teased. The sort of simultaneity that pringle’s speaker struggled to render into a speech is a cousin of the experience of time described through the angelus novus by Benjamin—but even if this speaker approaches the descriptive and productive powers of a creating god, it lacks the phenomenological agility and endurance of an angel. All one can do is yield creatively, subversively. “if time bends/ then bend back// if it suits you.” Narrativity becomes a symptom—a side effect of an overwhelming, overpowering chronology, a sort of taxonomy or salvage effort. Causality a patch on the wound as much as a shackle—it’s difficult to say
before i was killed i had to take one pill to stay alive and several pills to
handle the side effects caused by the one pill that was keeping me alive:
it became apparent that one of me was entertaining the thought of suicide and attempting to achieve this end by constantly playing scenes of our own tragic death (by hanging, by fire, decapitation by train, starvation, shot to the head, three shots to the heart just to say we love you frank Stanford). these detailed scenes began to haunt the other of me and that me me, who wanted to live, came to the conclusion that in order to live, one would have to die.
If fault tree borrows the lingo and the tricks with time of sci-fi and horror, it remains, at its most unsettling moments, rooted in the more quotidian discourses of illness, death, and infirmity. If its speaker dreams of other worlds—even if those other worlds manifest as haunted by contingency, or foreclosed, or doomed—its as a method of shunting aside the inevitability born—per Arakawa and Gins, once more—into material history. It seems to suggest that the means of confrontation with mortality, materiality, and memory can only attain a certain specificity and vigor when filtered through a speculative, spectacular rhetoric. The abstractions which torment fault tree’s speaker are fantastic only in their tangibility, their obliging to descend and be inveighed against. In fault tree, the material body, transient and mutable, dreams of combat.
buy it from Omnidawn: $16