I recently saw a picture of Elizabeth Warren and a little girl doing a pinky swear while Warren was telling the girl that she (Warren) was running for president, because that’s what girls do. It’s a powerful move; that little girl probably doesn’t know that, historically, it’s not what “girls” have done, that traditionally women have been excluded, either legally or informally in practice. And when women do run, they face the consequences of backlash—sometimes overt, sometimes more subtle—in the forms of misogyny and silencing. I suppose when Hillary ran against Trump, younger women were not surprised that a woman was in the running. Of course, the backlash was so great, maybe some women wished for Hillary and for themselves that they had been invisible, excluded, had stayed outside the realm of public office (and we know how many white women voted for Trump, or against Hillary, for some real and many fabricated reasons).
In Michelle Obama’s Becoming, she writes about visiting England just two months into the Obama presidency, and describes visiting an all-girls school made up mostly of low-income immigrants and students of color:
You had only to look around at the faces in the room to know that despite their strengths, these girls would need to work hard to be seen. There were girls in hijab, girls for whom English was a second language, girls whose skin made up every shade of brown. I knew they’d have to push back against the stereotypes that would get put on them, all the ways they’d be defined before they’d had a chance to define themselves … They’d have to work to find their voices and not be diminished, to keep themselves from getting beaten down. (319)
And she told them that she was “more like them than they knew.” Obama recognized the potential and real spaces of exclusion that they shared, as well as the possibility of going beyond and eliminating or changing the terms of those spaces altogether. Never losing sight of the consequences of structural and historical impediments for women of color—a recognition captured from a variety of angles in the book—Obama marvels in awe, hyper-conscious of the opportunity and responsibility of being the first black FLOTUS in the White House. The Obamas changed the terms of who could occupy that space and what that meant for the country. Although some wonder if it was worth it, given what followed Obama, backlash style, into that house, many look beyond that (this ongoing) catastrophe. How many people continue to be inspired by both Barack and Michelle; have rebelled against the ideas and actions of, as Ta-Nehisi Coates writes, the “First White President”; how many showed up in record numbers for the midterm elections, are joining social justice and progressive organizations to fight back, are donating in record numbers to the ACLU, Planed Parenthood, and other groups historically dedicated to protecting rights and fighting for equity; how many women have come out to run for public offices at local, state, and national levels since 2016? The moment is bad, but because the wave of “hope” hit so hard, it continues to ripple.
Of her book, Lawn of Excluded Middle, Rosemarie Waldrop writes that the “lawn of excluded middle” is “a venerable old law of logic” which assumes “that everything must be either true or false” and the book, “plays with the idea of woman as the excluded middle.” In another note, she writes that poetry is “an alternate, less linear logic” and in fact poetry might also be thought of as the excluded, and/or as the place to take up what is otherwise excluded. She also references Wittgenstein and the ambiguity of language, offering this image: that “his games are played on the lawn of excluded middle.” It’s a literal and figurative lawn on which people and ideas and practices, that are otherwise excluded, are allowed and encouraged to play, to claim or reclaim space, on the page and in the world. This is not to say that all women’s experiences are similar or even related; the figuration of this lawn is just that, a creative space open to interpretation and reflection. Maybe not all, but many nonetheless, have been literally, metaphorically, or symbolically left out on lawns, excluded and silenced in many kinds of ways.
Throughout Lawn, ideas are taken up in often paratactic poetic prose pieces and broken into sections, each section a long work, one prose block per page. That the language takes up space on the page is important, the prose block asserting visually that it is writing to be taken seriously, while the paratactic and at times nonlinear writing challenge expectations about syntax, sentences, and paragraphs, subtly critiquing standard (white male heteronormative) writing. Sometimes the pieces might remind readers of Gertrude Stein. Certainly, we have to move slowly, taking in one sentence, word by word, at a time. Those most astute readers will see the reflections, references, enactments of the spaces of exclusion in the text, like voices and ideas laid out on a huge lawn that’s covered in a field-size invisibility cloak. It’s maybe even more clear after reading Waldrop’s notes at the end, stating, “the four points of the compass are equal on the lawn of the excluded middle where full maturity of meaning takes time the way you eat a fish, morsel by morsel, off the bone. Something that can be held in the mouth, deeply, like darkness by someone blind or the empty space I place at the center of each poem to allow penetration” (49). Waldrop takes the prose paragraph and turns our expectations as readers. The ideas within are often not syntactically conforming, the sentences often not following “logically” from one to the next, the “meaning” arriving through unexpected turns and moments, the space on the page helping us to reflect on other kinds of spaces in the world.
Although, as she writes, “It’s a tall order that expects pain to crystallize into beauty” Waldrop also offers critical commentary, at times recognizing no small amount of pain, or the difficulty of negotiating one’s journey, via quite beautiful language. Like this:
I worried about the gap between expression and intent, afraid the world might see a fluorescent advertisement where I meant to show a face … Never mind that it is not philosophy but raw electrons jumping from orbit to orbit to ready the pit for the orchestra, scrap meanings amplifying the succession of green perspectives, moist fissures, spasms on the lips. (54)
I knew that true or false is irrelevant in the pursuit of knowledge which must find its own ways to avoid falling as it moves toward horizons of light. We can’t hope to prove gravity from the fact that it tallies with the fall of an apple when the nature of tallying is what Eve’s bite called into question. My progress was slowed down by your hand brushing against my breast, just as travel along the optic nerve brakes the rush of light. (89)
The last piece in Lawn asserts a preference for “the risk of falling” instead of “the arrogance of solid ground” and ends with another reference to Eve and the apple: “everyday language is using all its vigor to keep the apple in the habit of falling though the curve of the world no longer fits our flat feet and matter’s become too porous to place them on” (95).
The “green perspectives” above might mark the voices coming from the invisible or excluded lawn, clamoring for knowledge that swerves away from the facts or habits of what has always been assumed, “the nature of tallying.” And when women’s voices aren’t ignored, they are sidelined, the women pushed toward distraction or when distracted suddenly realizing (maybe too late) that a moment or opportunity to speak has passed by. Until one decides to jump, to become vulnerable to falling, to take risks. In fact, many women have always been vulnerable—the promise of solid ground rarely even solid at all—often pushed off, forced to fall. Language itself has always been an agent of habit, of maintaining status quo, of perpetuating narratives, unless what is seemingly solid “becomes too porous” and new stories can be heard.
All of this is to say, that I can see now how Laynie Browne may have felt swept away (or into an immediate present) when reading Waldrop’s Lawn of Excluded Middle, and decided to respond and reflect in her own poetic prose text, In Garments Worn by Lindens, a “homage” text for, and dedicated to, Waldrop. As she explains, each piece’s title in In Garments comes from Waldrop’s Lawn, and resonances of ideas can be felt throughout.
Browne is also no stranger to working with constraints, or constructing poetic projects within a specific framework or sense of structure. A constraint can also open the poetic process to play and experimentation. In “On the Elasticity of the Sonnet and the Usefulness of Collective Experimentation,” she writes:
Where is the serious playfulness in form? As writers, or explorers of consciousness, what materials do we have? The material within which we are operating is time. So in a sense life is already a time-based experiment. All form is time. I think of the modern sonnet as an increment of time within a frame. Something that often physically fits into a little rectangle (but not in thought). Something you can utter in one long convulsive breath or hold in your palm. When my hand covers the page it disappears. It's a controlled measure of sound and space within which one can do anything. An invitation.
Writing a series of poems can also open other kinds of possibilities or practices:
… One reason I like to think in series and sequences is that it tends to pull us out of the problem of preciousness … We also learn how poems talk to each other by writing and thinking in batches (think poems for immediate consumption). If you write slowly, perhaps you'll write a batch of fractional sonnets. The idea isn't density, but movement and momentum. Working in series also creates a big field in which to spread out, get comfortable, and mess up. We don't really learn anything by doing what we already know we can and do.
And working with language and structure in nonlinear, “non-normative” ways might also alter habits of thinking and meaning value:
What is our job as writers? Hannah Weiner writes, "If you are a poet would you have the three obligations work on yourself to become more conscious, work in the world to change it free and equal, include ecological survival, and work in poetic forms that themselves alter consciousness." She continues, "techniques of disjunctive, non-sequential, non-referential, writing can directly alter consciousness, whether by destroying long habits of rationality, by surprise tactics to which the brain responds differently, or by forcing a change to alpha level by engaging both hemispheres of the brain, choose your science." (Open House, "If Workshop") (161)
Browne’s In Garments begins with a piece titled, “When I say that women have a soul,” immediately capturing the sentiment and politics of Waldrop’s project, extending the argument for voice, visibility, and recognition of our very essences as humans. Although the prose block pieces in this book float and linger and swirl around gender and language, the homage that reiterates attention on what’s been and continues to be excluded or silenced never strays far from the page.
This first piece, like some that follow, also seems to reference Waldrop—or other poet ancestors—and the impact of reading on Browne:
Her sentences were patterns. Intrinsically inset. They lent meaning to those ensconced nearby. A network of tunnels one could intuit or travel, and yet the only way to inhabit them was to enter your own fathoming—or particular bloodstream. (1)
In fact, the first few pieces of In Garments set up the project, show us something about the how and why of this response-reflection, bring us in to the idea that a text can offer a journey, that through a text we can travel to other places, ideas, parts of ourselves. The second piece, titled “As if words were passports” begins: “Her sentences spoke to my sentences and in turn I learned language was talented in itself. I placed myself near her scripted-gardens and sunken entanglements” (2).
There are also references to the nonlinear, often indeterminate style of the pieces in this book. Although the work here feels less paratactic than Waldrop’s, the language reminds me of Harryette Mullen’s Trimmings and its Steinian play with color and detail in short prose pieces; Trimmings also engages in commentary not only on gender but also race, and whiteness in particular. Or how Lyn Hejinian’s My Life tells stories through a dynamic and diverse array of images not generally connected via expected narrative structures; what we get are feelings, or scenes, that build stories over the course of the book in blocks that look like prose paragraphs. In In Garments we often encounter concrete details that point to stories, for example: “When I say that she lined her eyes with kohl, and that her portrait was rimmed with two rings which linked her to the past—one of stony ice and another to foxfire—what I mean is that the one beyond her is decaying wood, the present which does not deteriorate” (32). Although the details build differently than through expected narrative “norms.” Browne’s prose pieces feel and sound like narrative tellings of events, if they are also telling in ways that we are not used to. And all of these writers recognize the power of narrative to affect readers, and how language can be used to (potentially) change the kinds of narratives that readers have become used to.
The title of the next piece, “Between expression and intent,” lets us pause for a moment to think about the gaps between what language tries to do and what it actually does or is able to do. Often what gets expressed is not the same as what the intention is. Language is rarely if ever exact in its denotation of meaning. The language play in these poetic prose pieces highlights the arbitrary nature of language, that, for example, again following Stein, any words put together will generate meaning, even if that meaning doesn’t seem like clarity. Maybe clarity is overrated, or unrealistically expected. Or maybe there are other ways of expressing ideas that don’t have to be formed in habituated ways of using language. Maybe the meanings in these pieces come from voices or intentions, that otherwise go unheard. Stein wanted us to pay attention to language in ways that we otherwise wouldn’t, to enjoy the play and appreciate all that language could do, to hear in language: possibility, or other ways of knowing.
There are also reflections on a seeming inner journey of the narrator of In Garments. In “Ghosts of grammar,” Browne writes, “In order to be revealed something first must be hidden. Layers were invisible, then binding, and finally trailed off into simple loops and pliable flourishes. I listened to her words as she spoke, very close to the edges of soluble perception” (10). In “Can I walk in your sleep” she writes, “What if your books hadn’t been placed in my passage? What if I didn’t recognize your words, which guided me toward a latent pause I only now begin to understand?” (11).
It’s a journey through how reading and writing not only clarify thought, but act as guide to understanding past events and ideas, to move beyond, or to linger even in moments of disconnect or rupture. Maybe the lawn is a space of solace, protected so that one can pause, think, write—although imposed, maybe the lawn can also be harnessed. I think of Julia Kristeva’s poetic language, both a space and activity before the “norms” of male heteronormative language structures are socialized into everything. And I think of Harryette Mullen’s essay on Stein’s Melanctha and Tender Buttons and how the complexities of religion, race, gender, sexuality, and other facets of identity are often compressed, individuals discriminated against in the wider mainstream, and how maybe the lawn offers space for that thinking and reflection. The lawn also houses our predecessors and mentors, our writer ancestors, those who helped show us the many ways of reading, writing, thinking, and being, who lead us toward new paths and new languages.
In “Though the pane masquerades as transparent” Browne writes, “If I am remade by this writing will you find yourself changed inside the cave of a single consonant, or the lip of a very light letter?” (66).
And in “The point of a needle out to draw blood regardless”: “I was an infant mother of an adolescent series of questions, very tall and thin, walking away from me, saying goodbye” (71).
And then, near the very end of the book:
Our body knows to disobey
Poetry is undrinkable mead worth imbibing, the need to place something in the mouth. Not needles, lips, or curling scripts of trees. Easily confused with unspoken eyes and indiscernible tremors. A liquid which warms until you stagger and eventually dream. Candles break fevers and illuminate births. (73)
By way of language, we learn how to ask questions, how to be in the world. And through language we can change or alter that world. Sitting with a book or series of poems, writing as articulation or reflection, learning from those who came before and who inspire or teach us about possibility, from staggering to dreaming, we can claim space, invite others in, and make something new.
Browne, Laynie. “On the Elasticity of the Sonnet and the Usefulness of Collective Experimentation.” Poets.org, 2010, https://poets.org/text/elasticity-sonnet-and-usefulness-collective-experimentation.
Browne, Laynie. In Garments Work by Lindens. Tender Buttons Press, 2018.
Mullen, Harryette. “If Lilies are Lily White From the Stain of Miscegenation in Stein’s “Melanctha” to the “Clean Mixture” of White and Colored in Her Tender Buttons.” The Cracks Between, Harryette Mullen and Hank Lazer. U. Alabama Press, 2012.
Waldrop, Rosemarie. “Lawn of Excluded Middle.” Curves to the Apple. New Directions, 2006.
(Lawn of Excluded Middle originally published by Tender Buttons Books, 1993)
Jill Darling has published poetry, fiction, and creative and critical essays. Her books include (re)iterations, a geography of syntax, Solve For, and begin with may: a series of moments as well as two collaborative chapbooks with Laura Wetherington and Hannah Ensor: at the intersection of 3, and The First Steps are the Deepest. Darling teaches writing at the University of Michigan in Dearborn and Ann Arbor. More info and links to work online can be found at jilldarling.com.