As human inventions go, punctuation is a recent one: the English word “punctuation” only dates to the 1530s, and the first rudimentary Western system of punctuation—in which dots signifying pauses of different lengths were placed between words—was devised in the third century BC by the Greek scholar Aristophanes of Byzantium. Prior to that readers of Ancient Greek and Latin had to contend with scriptio continua: text written in a continuous flow of letters, without breaks, punctuation, capitalization, or any other marks distinguishing one word from another.
Lauren Levin’s latest collection of poetry, Nightwork, includes nine poems spread across sixty-nine pages and only contains five periods, all of which are found in the first nine lines of one poem. Other forms of punctuation are present in the book, of course, but in general punctuation is used sparingly and to generally strange, un-prose-like-effect in the collection. This is also the case for Levin’s other books, The Braid and Justice Piece // Transmission, but Levin’s use of punctuation—or lack thereof—is most striking in Nightwork because of the collection’s extremely short lines. The whole book looks more or less like the opening lines of “City Park Branch”:
Hands at ratio park unspeak of reordering now to take care was frightening library on the street known facts floating hands at ratio parking swerve shouldn’t hold your mind
Nightwork’s dearth of punctuation is hardly its most distinguishing feature—that would be its ephemeral language. But Levin’s use, or relative disuse of punctuation, contributes to their overall project. See, Levin’s work is almost logical but ultimately not, much like the work of the more abstract modernists, such as Gertrude Stein or Louis Zukofsky. Nightwork is a tantalizing, slippery book of poetry: just when you think Levin has given you something to hold onto, the work slips through your fingers. Sometimes reading Levin’s work is like having a daydream; sometimes reading Levin’s work can actually induce the real thing.
And giving readers something to hold onto is where punctuation comes in: punctuation, per the Oxford English Dictionary, is the “practice, action, or system of inserting points or other small marks into texts, in order to aid interpretation” (emphasis mine), and furthermore “the observance or articulation of appropriate pauses and phrasing…by punctuation in a text.”
Here, as an example of work that uses punctuation to both aid interpretation and enforce pauses, are a few nicely punctuated sentences from the beginning of Eliot Weinberger’s essay “Naked Mole Rats.” Weinberger’s use of punctuation is almost aggressive: it, along with the varying length of his sentences, determines the paragraph’s rhythm.
Naked mole-rats have no fur, but their lips are hairy. Their pinkish mottled skin is loose and hang in folds, like something that has lost a great deal of weight, the easier to squirm through their narrow tunnels. Incisors protrude from their mouths like pincers, the only feature of their undefined faces. One naked mole-rat can fit across your fingers, its tail dangling down. They have been under the earth for at least three million years.
Which leads me to David Antin, whose work—specifically his 2005 book i never knew what time it was—I thought about often while reading Nightwork. Similar to Nightwork, i never knew what time it was is largely (if not wholly) punctuation-free, but for a different and very specific reason: Antin was foremost a performance artist, and when writing his work down he used spaces creatively to approximate how the pieces sounded when performed. To wit, the following lines from “the theory and practice of postmodernism”:
about two years ago elly and i decided we needed a new mattress or maybe elly decided it because i didnt pay much attention to the problem we had an old mattress wed had it for years and the salesman wed bought it from had assured us it would last us a lifetime and it was getting older and lumpy or lumpy in some places and hollowed out in others and i just assumed it was part of a normal process of aging
Unlike Antin’s work—which tends to follow a meandering, knotty, logic that might be wry but is nonetheless logical—Levin’s poetry is much more dreamlike; her work reminds me of free associative thinking or stream of consciousness writing, which I mean in the best possible way. The opening lines of “Leak,” from Levin’s first book The Braid, are a good example of this:
Somehow I don’t have the cups of the pump angled right so the milk sprays backward and flows down my belly Turn up the breast pump til it roars, today it sounds like the motor is saying “Sieg Heil,” “Sieg Heil,” when it’s usually more like “howAREyoudoinghowAREyoudoin”
And Nightwork’s “Sour Friend” opens with an explicit thesis statement regarding the work’s stream of consciousness-ness, with the lines “Let a mind cast where it will / if that’s the only way to do this / along the progress / of a thought / from start to finish”.
So it makes sense that Levin’s use of periods—and commas, question marks, and ellipses—might not always convey the same sense of rest as designed-for-prose punctuation might. After all, thoughts frequently aren’t neat and tidy. Here, as example of this, are the opening lines of “Painful Armpits,” which includes the only periods in the collection:
Painful armpits. Here Margie’s teenage children empties. Tonygirl’s for the brother for fair Joey the wave leaves the cave Chrome. Boy by name. The ring of light but too observed by light.
A few weeks ago, I attended the Zoom launch of Nightwork. During the event, which also served as the launch for Jeremy Hoevenaar’s Our Insolvency, Levin said—and I’m paraphrasing from my sketchy notes—that the poems collected in Nightwork are driven by the unconscious, versus being the products of the work of reason.
This strikes me as both very true of the sometimes frustrating, always compelling work collected in Nightwork, and as a useful guide to reading Levin’s poetry. Rather than searching for a clear logic in Levin’s poems, and very possibly becoming frustrated when one fails to find it, it’s better to give into what Levin called the work’s “looping and repetition”, and the constant possibility of surprise throughout. As the last lines of Nightwork’s “Tresk” read, “I like to ask her what talk is for / I like to watch her thinking / I like to see her return with a decision”.