Sense, Semiotics, & Sensibility
I recently overheard Agnes discussing The Witches with a friend at a party.
“What’s it about?” the friend asked.
“I don’t know,” Agnes replied.
“Somebody told me ‘aboutness.’”
And I don’t remember what Agnes said to that, something appreciative and coy, because I myself had to run off to the bathroom to take a huge shit, this little bathroom with its tiny pink marble toilet, a seat so small I worried my business would overwhelm it, tucked into the corner (without walls) of a large ball/barroom of dark carved wood and sumptuous curtains, where the guests sipped their cocktails and made polite conversation as I dashed off these sentences whilst trying not to miss the bowl.
This was a dream I had. This was all from a dream. But the words were real, I think.
How do we talk about something imaginary within something imaginary? A friendship between two girls who don’t exist? A plot line running through images that slide away between unfamiliar sentences? How do we talk about these things that exist only as words but are also definitely, definitely there?
My tea is getting cold. My bicycle has to pee. Somebody finished all the chips.
So how can I, just a gal from the sticks, deign to write about Borinsky’s extraordinary play, Borinsky’s extraordinary play which constantly, necessarily eludes me? And why write about it, why impose that rudeness with these words? (“Is this banana about this oboe?” or a line something like that [all of us laughed] was in the play).
I went on a hike last weekend, and stomping with muddy boots through Agnes’s play feels similar. The new woods don’t ask you to “get” them, there is nothing to “get.” The “event” of the woods is their own rude existence. The times I think I see something are just as much me as it. Borinsky has found a wide forest and charted for us a ragged trail through it. Some of the trees look familiar. Some of the trees aren’t trees.
I realize that I have done nothing to describe the play as it is. There is a table, with five microphones. One by one, performers enter the room. They sit. They read the play. There are birds on the wall, and string. There are lots of threads to follow – the boy with his goldfish; the literary critic with her son, the bicycle; the curmudgeonly playwright/poet/theoretician Yushi who may or may not exist but definitely definitely has strong opinions about the use of language; a plot to burn down the city; a guy who’s just been fucked; and some people (not us) who have gone to see a play. All of it is the same thing, but all of it is different things. Don’t look for unity because there is none. Don’t look for unity because there is too much.
Some lone sentences appear in a bleak landscape. If I put this loose end to my head, the shock will cure my depression. I wake up on Tuesday with Sunday’s cum on my chest¹. Borinsky’s language clings to you like those little seeds with the stickers on them, the type that after a day in the woods you find all over your high socks. You could pull them off one by one, but why?
I should tell you that this play is marvelous. I should tell you to go see it. I should tell you that by the time you are reading this it is no longer running. I should tell you that Agnes is one of the kindest, deepest, most intriguing people I know, soft-spoken and funny. I should tell you that the text is for sale, just ten dollars (with line drawings!), and that they make great gifts for nieces and nephews.
I should tell you that if you have any clout in this town, or just a few hundred bucks and an empty room, then you should program this play. (I’m looking at you COIL, Under the Radar, &c. &c.)
A few months ago I went for a hike, and, after traipsing through the ruins of a long-forgotten town, grown over with imported trees, I arrived at the crest of a hill, where a flock of some four hundred starlings whipped over my head. They just kept appearing, around from some corner I just couldn’t see. I can ask myself now “Where is the flock? Who is leading?” But that tells me nothing of the rush I felt, the pure giddy joy of being caught within something, the charge of seeing something special.
Where is the play? It’s in between us. It’s in the sentences. It’s inside. It’s nowhere. It’s at the community center with paper birds on the wall. It’s in a dream.
Months ago at a Thai restaurant in Portland, ME somebody asked Agnes what her greatest fear was. “My greatest fear is that the words I use will no longer make sense to anyone but me, that I will be unable to communicate,” she said².
A more pedestrian way of expressing this fear would be simple madness, a loss of grip with reality. But Borinsky’s fear is finer than that – she fears not that she would lose grip with reality, but that her words would cease to signify, that they would lose their grip³. Yet time and time again in her writing (and nowhere more than here in The Witches) Borinsky fiendishly stokes a painful divorce between signifier and signified. The whole delicate train is this close to falling off the tracks, she seems to warn us, and where would we be then?
But I don’t think Borinsky’s dance with the nearly nonsensical is meant as a warning. I see it instead as a celebration, a song of praise for the quiet wonder that is language, reference, and meaningª.
For what is it to call something a “friendship?” To talk about a thing I cannot touch or rub or point to or spit on? Yet the word “friendship” means something, it points to something both real and imaginary – real because it is in the world, imaginary because it exists between things, as a relationship, a connection, a thing implied. And just as we unify this multi-faced cluster of events by calling it a “friendship,” so too do I call the birds over my head a “flock,” or the sentences in this room a “play.” In other words, Borinsky is pointing to an act of imagination implicit in the language, in the act of giving something a word and making it a whole. The connection between word and reference is an imagined connection (like a friendship, like a flock), and in that sense it is holy.
Blest be the tie that binds
Our hearts in Christian love;
The fellowship of kindred minds
Is like to that above.
I could try to subject these sentences to more of the sort of rigorous logical analysis worthy of a publication such as this, but like the play’s Famous Literary Critic who listens through the walls of the rotating set, I would misunderstand every word. The boy is a bicycle. The boy is a boy.
There’s a goldfish, and a cat, and some pretty giddy descriptions of getting fucked. The city burns down, the play starts. We sit, we fidget, and afterwards we all go to the loud bar to be together.
(1) These lines are misremembered from the play. I’m sure I have the days wrong.
(2) Misremembered and misquoted.
(3) [John] Ashbery’s style prizes such mistakes and misapprehensions, as though looking for the word on the tip of the tongue. William James described consciousness as the “alternation of flights and perchings,” suggesting that we tend to overvalue the “perchings,” the nouns or the primary verbs in a sentence that steal the spotlight from the little words, like “in,” “and,” “but,” “or,” and “of.” It was James, a profound influence on Ashbery, who coined the term “stream of consciousness,” and who insisted on what he called a “reinstatement of the vague and inarticulate to its proper place in our mental life.” James’s “flights” and in-between zones find, in “Breezeway,” a breezeway: a structure between structures, a place to rest that is not a resting place, a “long Q & A period” before the big event is adjourned—a period marked, as in the title of one poem, by deliberate “Andante and Filibuster.”*
* Chiasson, Dan. “American Snipper.” The New Yorker 1 Jun. 2015 – http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2015/06/01/american-snipper-books-chiasson
(a) “[There is a] powerful opposition between warning and celebration – loss of meaning is threatening. [Stanley] Cavell describes a threat of fraudulence that hangs over modern art – John Cage or Jackson Pollock or John Ashbery could be putting us on. That’s the risk they have to run to do what they do.” – Jarrett Moran, a friend I asked for edits on this essay.