“What is your truth?”
“What lacerates me.”
“And your salvation?”
“Forgetting what I said.”
–Edmond Jabès, The Book of Questions
2012 is the 100th anniversary of the birth of Egyptian writer Edmond Jabès, a writer whom I first encountered in my early twenties, during a time when I was casting about for a source of moral authority in my life—and finding its absence (and the subsequent discovery that that moral authority is or can be oneself) mildly traumatic. When I realized, this Spring, that his centennial anniversary had arrived, I contacted a few Chicago poets, artists and writers whose work had been informed by Jabès, to gauge their interest in hosting a reading dedicated to the living memory of this extraordinary writer. The response was overwhelmingly positive, and further collaborations have happily ensued between myself and poet and visual artist Jill Magi, including this essay. Jill’s work documents border-crossings between the body and public space, and between ideologies inscribed and experience as it is lived. Her projects combine research with the following forms: poetry, fiction, the essay, drawing, photography, the book as form, and embroidery. Jill is one of the readers who will be celebrating Jabès’ legacy at Open Books in Chicago on April 22, along with myself, Leif Haven and Nicole Wilson. Jill’s relationship to Jabès’ work is inflected by her commitments not only to his written texts but to how his written texts relate to other dimensionalities—the spatial and temporal dimensions, yes, but also the physical materiality—the actual embodiment—of his vision.
While beginning to correspond with Jill, it occurred to me that the dialogue—never having met in person, linked only by a dear mutual friend—we were creating was deeply aligned with Jabès’ own commitments—wherein we find what we are seeking (wherein “dialogue recovers its place, which had long stood empty”) on the shores of the impossible. With every exchange, as we grew acquainted with each other’s words and creative process, I grew more and more certain that the spirit of Jabès’ work presided over our fusion of thoughts, images, and words. When Jill shared with me the intricacies of her project, visual images of which are contained below, I was immediately struck by her sensitivity to and careful preservation of the rupture of the written word for Jabès, puncturing as it does through the fog of sleep and forgetting, in the creation of her three-dimensional book. I was also struck by how labor-intensive and laborious her process was, as any genuine act of inscription should be. In the beginning stages of our project, she wrote, “I don’t have a clear idea about how to proceed . . . I am really comfortable . . . not knowing for a while.” Without knowing it, she, with those words, effectively erased years of ego-hardening against the blank white page of the unknown. The true spirit of dialogue had begun.
Reading the work of Edmond Jabès, I think of the book as a container and I think that language and experience cannot be contained. I am comforted by this seemingly contradictory notion of reading and writing and living: a process of putting things in containers (meaning, mastery), only to discover what seeps out, or what does not fit (mystery, magic). This is contraction and release—moving through the world/word in a simultaneous state of control and lack of control—a method of reading and writing that prepares me for living, or completely shrinks the space between these activities. This is faith: understanding evades and comes.
As a person who writes and makes text-based visual art, I think of the book and body as forms, and I am aware of this particular image of the book, the body: While doing archival research some years ago, I encountered an intriguing tool: the fabric-encased chain of weights used to hold a book open on its cradle, enabling reading without cracking the binding. The reader might place this tool, vertically, on both sides of the open book, or a reader might gently lay the weights across the gutter across the two leaves of the book.
I have been thinking, since then, that a book, opening, is somatically equivalent to my shoulders, opening, connected by the line made by my collarbone, across. I think of the work of the breath as those weights that encourage the two surfaces, recto and verso, to widen, spread into legibility. Of course the heart is exposed, the lungs are expanding.
This is the body attuned to spacious risk.
I didn’t find a voice of moral authority in Jabès: au contraire, I found texts that assured me I wasn’t alone in wanting to “hear” (I felt its reverberations) poetry that emitted a scream in place of seemly language and a stream of questions in lieu of intractable postulations: poetry that danced between language as signification and language as inscription, or between purely opaque materiality and perfectly transparency: poetry, in short, that didn’t just make me feel like the top of my head had been removed, but which actually removed it.
From The Book of Questions: “I have given your name and Sarah’s to this stubborn scream,/ to this scream wedded to its breath and older than any of us,/ to this everlasting scream/ older than the seed.”
What I had sought, and in Jabès, found: an encounter with the textual sublime.
Born in Cairo in 1912 into a Jewish family, Jabès was exiled on account of being a Jew from Egypt during the Suez Crisis of 1956. He fled to Paris, where he was associated with members of the surrealist movement, though was never himself a full-fledged member. In 1987 he was awarded France’s Grand Prix for Poetry; that same year, he presented his work at the World Exposition in Montreal, alongside Sartre, Camus, and Lévi-Strauss. The author of over a dozen multi-volume collections, Jabès’ writing defies description while at the same time courting it. It is a poetics of question and answer, call and response: an investigation of Jewish mysticism and the Kabbalah, an interrogation of spiritual and physical exilic dislocations, all wrought in forms that despite their occasional fragmentation, remain dialogic on the structural level, and evince a fierce commitment to the pursuit of wisdom.
Poetry or prose? To Jabès, the distinction was less important than the words themselves, though he has plenty to say about each genre: on narrative, from The Book of Questions: “Man’s salvation is whatever has, as he has, a beginning and an end . . . ” On poetry, from The Book of Shares: “Siamese twins with separate heads: thought and poetry . . . Poetry, which is intuitive clarity, lightly clouds words in order to go with them to the threshold of day where the poem is written. There is no mystery which cannot, sooner or later, be unraveled.”
The Book of Shares takes on a slew of contemporary themes related to ownership, property, and distributive wealth but from a philosophical perspective, not that of economics or political science. “What value can we bestow on a gift which by definition excludes equitable shares? It will overwhelm one and disappoint another . . . just distribution depends on everybody having the same capacity to enjoy the property received.” We cannot share a book, Jabès argues, because it elicits such diverse approaches, so as to send us back to one single book: the book created by our reading. “Having read it, we have shared nothing, but kept everything for ourselves or else given it all without return. After God’s crushing example.” Dramatizing choice, each word apocalyptic, The Book of Shares is classic Jabès—quite simply, unequalled in its intimacy with textual destruction and deliverance, and the truly figural aspects of language, particularly the face. “Lack. Lacuna./ A curve is but a straight line/ frightened by its own daring./ Reassuring image of the loop . . . Dark splendor of beyond.”
Who writes like this, or perhaps more to the point, with whom could Jabès be aligned? The short answer is no one: a longer answer might include mention of Clarice Lispector, Henri Michaux, or Aimé Césaire. Writers of enigma. Writers of elliptical truth. Writers of homeland, of belonging, and its inverse, despair.
This year I wanted to make some books that were unbound, that were perhaps free from any constraints associated with this particular architecture. I thought of books that could be opened in new ways, books that were perhaps more loose, shuffled, and chaotic. Touring the Art Institute of Chicago and encountering their collection of Joseph Cornell boxes, I thought about the box as a book. Then I found three cardboard boxes that nested, one inside the other, and these three boxes sat on the corner of my work table for weeks.
March in Chicago was very warm and I spent hours walking along the edge of Lake Michigan, delighting in the shades of blue I found there. Without knowing why or for what purpose, I painted the inside of each box a progressively lighter shade of blue—moving from a darker teal shade, through medium blue, then to a nearly washed-out sky blue for the smallest, innermost box.
And because of the invitation from Virginia to read at an event in honor of Jabès, each morning during this time, I re-read The Book of Questions. I copied key passages in my notebook. This is from page 51: “A blank sheet is full of paths. It must each time be discovered.”
One day I looked back at my notebook—white sheets of paper, the contrast of black ink in the rhythm of my handwriting, the comfort of page numbers—and feeling grateful for Jabès’ work to the point of overflowing, I imagined these words from page 51 stitched onto/into white linen, and folded up inside the smallest, lightest-blue box.
Text as a cloud. A dreamy wish or instructions, where each word pulsates with its stitches. So I sat and stitched: the sound of the puncture and then the pull of thread, over and over, until the phrase was complete, and completely memorized/incorporated by me. Then came the more strenuous task of making a “title page”—stitching “from Jabès” through the tough exterior of the cardboard box top. How the violence of this is also true to the origins of his work. Puncture/rupture leads to words, and a book is evidence of struggle, a hard-fought back and forth.
I imagine a reader who runs their fingers over the thread of the cover. They open each box, a process of moving inward, toward something small, something distilled. They open the last box and unlike paper, the fabric can withstand multiple foldings and unfoldings—so they pull and unfurl two sentences.
A sail, a ritual cloth, a veil, a handkerchief, a soft page.
To touch the container, to uncover, discover the fabric, and then to touch each letter, is a way to read.
To place the moment that has just happened, to place these phrases from Edmond Jabès back into boxes, knowing how to re-open again if you desire, is a way to read and to be read, which is to live.