Review of The Philosophy of Decomposition / Re-Composition as Explanation: A Poe and Stein Mash-Up by Michael Leong. Delete Press, 2011.
The Philosophy of Decomposition / Re-composition as Explanation
Reading-Re Composition / n o i t i s o p m o c e d
In his afterword, Michael Leong describes The Philosophy of Decomposition / Re-composition as Explanation (POD / RAE) as a “genetic splicing of two classic essays on composition” (37); however, to begin to speak of POD / RAE, printed by Delete Press, “mashed-up” from Edgar Allan Poe’s essay “The Philosophy of Composition,” and Gertrude Stein’s essay “Composition as Explanation,” I get the sense that we must start from the knot of the linen thread, binding in the gutter of the single signature of pages, wrapped in a tissue-thin sheet of gunpowder-burned paper. It is here that the time comes “for the autorial author to show the original (but false) author the door”; when “the pleasure of merely observing” becomes “the embodying act” (20).
Restricting the text’s vocabulary to the words used by Stein and Poe in their essays, Leong constructs his own, contemporary definition of what the word “composition” means. By mashing-up definitions of composition from across a 165-year time-span (1846, 1926, and 2011), POD / RAE’s process takes literally Stein’s claim that the contemporary is simply a “different” way of “seeing” what has always been:
The only thing that is different from one time to another is what is seen and what is seen depend upon how everybody is doing everything. This makes the thing we are looking at very different and this makes what those who describe it make of it, it makes a composition, it confuses, it shows, it is, it looks, it likes it as it is, and this makes what is seen as it is seen. Nothing changes from generation to generation except the thing seen and that makes a composition. (Stein 453)
Limiting POD / RAE to the actual words used by its two source texts, Leong throws POD / RAE head-first into the wager that a contemporary definition of composition revisions the same materials available to the past. Mashed-up with Poe’s interest in originality as a reconfiguration of content within formalistic constraints of set rhyme and meter, I would say that what is absolutely contemporary about Leong’s work is his linkage of process with strategies of explication that remain rather isolated in the essays of Poe and Stein.
It is interesting to note how little Leong actually borrows from the philosophy of his source texts while recycling their words. If we were to consider syntax and tone, Leong would be nearest to Poe’s register with his long fluid sentences. However, of the two essays, Stein’s “Composition as Explanation” comes closest to the integration of process with explication through her use of only the most paired-down of sentence structures and the most generic vocabulary possible. In doing so, Stein literally constructs her definition of what is innovative and contemporary from the most commonly used phrases and the least specific words possible (anybody, everybody, generation, looking, seeing, thing, everything, different, etc.). With some effort, one could see an echo of Stein’s project in POD / RAE, but without the cue of the title, the connection would be unlikely.
Continuing to consider POD / RAE’s combination of process and content, Poe’s essay “The Philosophy of Composition,” may be the most dissimilar to Leong’s work, because it maintains a rather comfortable distinction between the poetic strategies he describes having employed in “The Raven,” and his explication of them in prose. However, it seems to be Poe’s almost easy distinction that troubles Leong throughout POD / RAE. Although the relationship is rarely spoken of in explicit terms, it almost emanates from the gutter-seam of the book. The recurrence of the words “poem,” “poetry,” “prose,” and “essay” seem to weave invisible chords between themselves. The distinctiveness of each page compounds the sense of connection by requiring itself to negotiate again the bounds and terms by which poetry and prose are distinguished, to the extent that readers are never allowed to develop a system for separating poetry from prose. There can be no safe distance between the poetic and prosody when paragraphs and lines occupy the same page; when paragraphs are rife with repetition, alliteration, assonance, consonance, and
The fluttering of its pages made a monotone of sound, a sound so prolonged that it seemed like one long vacillating thought. It was a radiant discourse that began to emerge, step by step, from Night’s beguiling academies – like a classic nineteenth century midnight unexpectedly thought by some twentieth century mind. (5)
From page to page, there was a groping for life as if the book – which had an intense frenzy not for identity but for repetition and variation – determined to have the self-consciousness of a catalectic window.
Throughout the text, as here, I get the sense that language is actually folding over and over itself, and the repetition of the word and punctuation with its morphemes are enacting there very own mash-up, which becomes so gorgeously audible. Thus the mash-up process of the text and composition as “decomposition” and “re-composition” reveal POD / RAE’s very own original and contemporary understanding of language. It is from the midst of language as unoriginal, from someone-else’s page that language is seen clearly for what it is: a system of parts recycled and re-inscribed as needed in an infinite number of contexts.
As a text that occupies and negotiates the chaos of the middle, it is the concept of the fold, or the gutter-space which recurs as an architectural element of the text. When a word is treated as material which can be repurposed when detached from its current context and significance, it may be the signs of creasing which become stability. In particular, looking to the title of the text, it stands out as odd that “re-composition” would have a hyphenated prefix, while “decomposition” would not. (That this hyphen may be a consequence of Leong’s mash-up constraint, can be ruled out since neither the word “decomposition” nor “re-composition” can be found in either Stein or Poe’s texts.) Thus, in the context of “decomposition,” the hyphen suggests that “re” has been tacked on; that the word has been fabricated; that “recomposition” is not yet a word established in the dictionary. Additionally, instead of signifying anything fundamentally new about recomposition, in which it follows that one would break apart and remake something that already exists, it’s actually “decomposition” which is illuminated here. In light of “re-composition” it is the erasure of the hyphen in what would once have been “de-composition” that stands out. Thus erasure, abbreviation, and compression become visible as “marks” of development.
Rather than participating in this sort of erasure, POD / RAE calls attention to it, particularly through its shift from paragraphs into shorter and shorter lines. It seems that the text increasingly stretches itself across pages, transitioning from full paragraphs to broken ones such as:
It was inevitable that I could no longer increase the intended effect of originality because I was keeping my eye so close to the shutter.
How I lost myself just looking for the view. (14)
Then clipping and splicing them further:
and I wrote very still
as a bird made of felt
because more and more
of myself is now
marked by a realising
past not remembered
for a second I was seized
by a rhythm of obeisance
words came to me
continuously from a poem
you wrote when I quoted
the phase when the whole
began infinitely to part (29)
Until words and phrases appear as isolated elements across the page:
before me time perches on the initial design now susceptible to some other, troublesome sight — a naturally, almost universally repeating view of nothing, of its true extent, a concluding and a beginning again and again that even it itself cannot precisely remember (33)
While the stretching suggests a sort of decomposition, it seems that what might have become a full decomposition, is held back by the maintenance of sense-making throughout. Even in the final poem cited here, the most fractured of the three, never becomes fractured in terms of sense to the extent that if we were to put this in sentence form it would be unlikely that we’d call it fractured at all: before me time perches on the initial design now susceptible to some other… Rather than a complete break-down, the text requires only that the eye to travel further from word to word in order to complete the sense of the text.
It was at first troubling to me that this decomposition I had expected didn’t occur completely; however, in combination with POD / RAE’s fidelity to its constraints, that betrayal of expectation becomes crucial to the understanding of “re-composition” and “decomposition” which is developed by the text. It is through fidelity to constraint and sense, that POD / RAE reveals decomposition and re-composition’s constant attempts to gloss over their common state of being “in-progress.” The continuity which is maintained while it is unexpected, exposes the falseness of continuity in the first place. Read in this way, line breaks and instances of increased space between words evidence the trajectory of the hyphen Leong interjects between “re” and “composition”: both decomposition and re-composition involve a breaking apart which increases the space between components of what was/is seen as whole or complete. Such a relationship requires an understanding of the page as blank space upon which “composition” functions as the abbreviated term for both decomposition and re-composition.
POD / RAE reveals that within the word and upon the page, it is blank space and recompression that results from development, elaboration, and deterioration; a mark becomes the presence of pigment on a sign of “not-yet.”
But don’t just take my word for it.
Poe, Edgar Allan. “The Philosophy of Composition.” Graham’s Magazine 28.4, 1846, pp. 163-167. The Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore. Web. 4 Jan 2011.
Stein, Gertrude. Selected Writings of Gertrude Stein. Carl Van Vechten, ed. NY: Random House, Inc., 1946.
 The forward slash in the title would also be a relevant example of the fold, that we haven’t the space to address here.
 This state of being “in-progress” is perhaps synonymous with what Deleuze and Guattari term a state of “becoming.”