Sunday, April 03, 2011

A Paper City Built on Sand: Language and the Nominative Act in Nathalie Stephens' "Paper City"

It is only fair that I am the young poet who gets the ball rolling with a response of my own before posting responses from the other young poets this month. I will be looking at a poem that has resonated with me since first encountering it in a class last year and has done much to inform my subsequent thinking thinking about both place and language, Nathalie Stephens' "Paper City".

Paper City

Colour is élogiuex. But the absence of colour offers even

greater allure, for desire brings language into being. And

colour is an aspect – integral – of language. And integral

means not only unperishable – not to be conflated with

immortal, which will emerge no doubt in the later versions of

this same text – but visceral. The version intégrale of a work

of literature is one that has not been altered, that has not

been tampered with. They are the author's words as laid

down by the author, as assembled and at times dismantled,

as manipulated and too as astonished. For let it be said that

while language astonishes the writer, the writer too aston-

ishes language. Only the writer who astonishes language –

who dares to tamper with it – is worthy of the epithet.

Language is assuredly the author's tool, but it is also sedi-

ment, and when disturbed, may at once muddy and reveal.

More importantly, sediment travels, over land, through the

body, across the tongue. It is untouchable, and must not be


The poem begins by stating that “[colour] is élogieux” which begins the poem affirming that colour is something laudatory, or praise-worthy; Stephens, however, immediately counters that “the absence of colour offers even greater allure, for desire brings language into being”. Tension is immediately stated within the poem. While description and nomenclature are ostensibly good and necessary acts – colour being a quality named and attributed to an object that is, say, red for example – there is a greater mystique or allure to the unnamed, to the absence of colour; absence calls out to be named, generates desire. In this case the poem becomes self-reflexive, evoking whiteness – the absence of colour – and through this, the blank page to be filled by writing. The blank page calls to the writer, the desire to write moving language into being both an act of communication as well as an act of creation. The gesture towards the blank page also secures a reference to the title of the poem within the first lines that reverberates through the poem as a meditation on the difficulty of writing about the area where words and place collide.

Colour becomes “integral – of language”, which is to say that it is “not only unperishable ... but visceral”. Colour here, in its joyous naming and alluring absence, becomes a more definite article within language that demonstrates the tension of which Stephens' writing elucidates about language. Stephens here uses the poem to illuminate the idea that writing is a continual process; she writes of the “version intégral of a work of literature” which exists as something untampered with. Even this version of the work, as definitely and solely by the hand of the author, is constantly in flux, being “assembled and at times dismantled”. Here the tension inherent to working with language again arises, this time through the act of writing itself; an author strives to achieve an integral and untampered with work but is constantly forced to re-evaluate and reassemble a text that, through its encounter with, and being comprised of, language, constantly disassembles itself. Writing becomes an architecture of dry sand.

The self-disassembling of a text through its language is symptomatic of the astonishment of both the author and language itself for Stephens. There is, in the act of writing, a reciprocal relationship between the author and language. The written work is a vessel which travels between these two parties constantly, indeed, necessarily, for Stephens, who sees the tension of astonishment in language as the mark of an author “tampering” with it. It is only the author who engages in the act of tampering and astonishing language who is “worthy of the epithet” of being named poet. It is interesting that Stephens here, instead of simply stating “worthy of being called a poet”, refuses to name that which is contained in the “epithet”. With a reluctance to name – and hence also destroy – the poem speaks to a sympathy Stephens has for the artful tamperers and also to the desire not to define, name, or master art. As such, the “epithet” remains a perfectly appropriate way for Stephens to gesture toward what she speaks of without inflicting the violence of naming upon it.

This violence of naming is expressed also through Stephens' fulcrumlar last metaphor in the poem. Stephens writes that “[language] is assuredly the author's tool, but it is also sediment, and when disturbed, may at once muddy and reveal.” The tension at the centre of the work is explicated in a particular image. The tension moves from the abstract attribute of colour, to the abstract particular act of writing and into a particular image evoking precisely the activity of writing. The image of sediment effusing from the riverbank when disturbed is concretely understandable to the reader but also speaks directly to the manner in which naming reveals while also simultaneously obscuring; the sediment is removed from the bank, revealing the bed, but the water itself is muddied, obfuscating vision. The sediment is the both the writing of the text and the text's self-disassembling through the uncertainty borne by the nominative act.

The final line of the poem serves to reiterate the image of sediment as language and the necessity of its being tampered with; Stephens writes that “sediment travels, over land, through the body, across the tongue. It is untouchable, and must not be revered.” Here the pervasiveness of language is conveyed through the image of sediment moving downstream once disturbed. The final line reiterates the sanctity of language while at the same time stating the necessity of its being tampered with and, through this, the necessity of the activity of the poet. Language becomes the various structures that define the Paper City; the paper city becomes inhabited by authors, who tamper with the language, redefine its skyline and borders, sewer systems and public transit. The city, however, not unlike Venice, sits precariously atop centuries of shifting sediment and, despite or through all the industry of its citizens, is unavoidably sinking.

Stephens, Nathalie. Paper City. Toronto: Coach House Books, 2003. Print. p. 19

Ben Hynes, Montreal

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