Book Review

When I am most stressed—when a concern hard and intractable churns, when a thought restless and wiry knots—I need a plan. That’s what I think. A notebook fills with charts, and impatient lines cross out items on the to-do list. An illusion of control. And then there’s the doodling while I listen to a lover on the phone, an idling with line, wavy, curly, loopy, as I follow the cherished voice.

I consider these two kinds of lines—the scheming and the dreamy—as I pour over Renee Gladman’s Plans for Sentences, which consists of sixty drawings paired with sixty texts. Certainly more whimsical than calculating, the ink drawings outline fantastical structures. Calligraphic, buoyant, the lines often break free of geometry and yield to capricious scribbles—tiny words, or words crossed out, or coils that mime cursive writing. In the second half of the book, watery, amorphous, soft spots of color appear. The last drawing consists almost entirely of a gray wash with tiny writing-like scribbles edging the bottom.

While my eye roams each drawing, tracing lines that wind, dart, spire, or clot, my eye is disciplined once it lands on the facing text, a left-to-right march of statements describing future sentences. Here is one example:

FIG. 32

These sentences will round then slope then lapse; they will void then thin then fail. They will cluster at the edge and open. They will round at the edge and void

These sentences will round and hold as they lean; they will void in their interior but will hold. They will cleave the last refrain and go quiet; they will open and blacken

The verbs—round, slope, lapse, void, thin, fail, cluster, open, round, hold, void, hold, cleave, go, open, blacken—anticipate sentences undergoing metamorphosis. The absence of end punctuation suggests these sentences will never reach completion. What I find most curious is the contrast between the sentence itself and the sentence that’s imagined. The sentence is throwing itself on the other side of its steady syntax, promising a wilder more unruly iteration in the future.

All the texts are titled “FIG.1,” “FIG.2,” and so on. Typically, figure numbers identify images in a book or manual. Here, their use as titles suggests the sentences as instructive or illustrative of the drawings, a reversal of the usual logic of drawings in a text functioning as explanatory. The drawings, then, are sentences, and the texts are imaginary, would-be sentences.

Plans for Sentences may be read in at least three ways. One way is to proceed from drawing to drawing, skipping the texts, and getting lost in Gladman’s inventive structures, which sprout from  willfully illegible script, paying attention to rhythms of enclosure and opening, and the emergence of color.

A second approach is to read each open spread (drawing on the left and sentences on the right) as one and the same field. This field is occupied by two kinds of marks, drawing and print text: one generates the illusion of a recessive space in which to roam, one cleaves to the field’s surface. The field of the page is not neutral ground but charged and expectant, an extension of architectural raveling and unraveling. The print text may be understood as figures on this field, and, in this way, the sentences are experienced also as architectural models: “These sentences will antenna the unknown and, in their phrasing, will make these wall-less floors viable for living.”

Finally, I read the sentences. Just the sentences, one after another. Such pleasures, Gladman’s sentences with their enigmatic but fervent imperatives. They remind me of another set of sentences encountered about ten years ago as I was wandering through the Schirn Kunsthalle in Frankfurt, Germany, taking notes on a Yoko Ono retrospective. Disoriented while looking for the bathroom, I found myself on a balcony adjacent to administrative offices. There, on the walls, I discovered tiny handwritten sentences: “this room moves at the same speed as the clouds” and “this room slowly evaporates every day.” I was instructed to “find other rooms which exist in this space” and “stay until the room is blue.” A repeat performance of Blue Room Event, originally conceived in 1966 and, as installed at the Schirn, it was intended to be discovered only by chance. Perplexed and charged by the handwritten set of instructions, I was sensitive to the balcony on which I stood but also acutely aware of another room, blue and slowly evaporating.

I have a similar experience of time and amplitude in the presence of Gladman’s future-tense sentences with their emphatic, intimate “this” and “these.” For example, “These sentences will be places of moss,” or “these will be the inhabitable sentences.” Each sentence puts in operation yet another sentence whose iteration in moss or fitness for dwelling is left to the reader, each sentence a score for the future performance of a sentence. Tomorrow: “These sentences will constellate the gears that alter your movements on weather; they will foment tiny gears of speech, clicking, turning, moating, and will be like wind blowing thought back onto itself, behind itself so that thought moves by leaning forward.”

About the Reviewer

Eva Heisler has published two books of poetry: Reading Emily Dickinson in Icelandic and Drawing Water. Honors include the Poetry Society of America's Emily Dickinson Award and fellowships at MacDowell and Millay Arts. Poems have appeared in BOMB, Colorado Review, Heavy Feather Review, Michigan Quarterly Review, and Poetry Northwest.