Picking Up the Pieces

In Pieces: an anthology of Fragmentary Writing

edited by Olivia Dresher
[399pp, $17.00, Impassio Press, PO Box 31905, Seattle, WA 98103, USA]

In the Introduction to this collection, Olivia Dresher says that her intention is 'to honor the fragment as a literary genre in its own right' (p. xi). She goes on to list some of the genres represented in the book (somewhat begging the question of how we can view the fragment as a genre in its own right): 'Besides selections from diaries and notebooks, In Pieces also includes aphorisms, vignettes, selections from letters (including letters written in haiku form), and an essay (written fragmentarily) on the postcard as fragmentary writing' (p. xii).

First, let's celebrate the fact that there are good examples of very brief poetic prose (aphoristic or not) in Yannis Ritsos' and Giles Goodland's work, and more expansive work (in the form of the meditative journal) that is highly engaging (Mary Azrael, Audrey Borenstein).... But even without instancing other examples (an interesting essay by Roy Arenella, some good (though not consistently good) haiku by Ellis Avery, an intriguing journal by Scott Sussman), it's clear that we are really looking at quite diverse approaches to what might be thought of as fragmentary writing.

In The Chambers Dictionary
, the fragment is defined as 'a piece broken off; a usu small piece of something broken or smashed; an unfinished portion (eg of a writing)'. Very little indeed of the work in this collection fits these definitions (for example, an unfinished short story is surely not the same thing as a fragmentary narrative piece, in as much as the latter explores narrative elements that are isolated or left unextended). The same dictionary defines 'fragmentary' as 'consisting of fragments; broken; in fragments; existing or operating in separate parts, not forming a harmonious unity' (The Chambers Dictionary, Chambers Harrap, 1999, p. 634). Again, there is little in Dresher's selection of fragmentary writing that would exactly coincide with these senses of the fragmentary, apart from the last definition, but we need to look at this more closely. Otherwise, if we continue to use these terms for the sort of writing in this collection (and similar tendencies in writing), it must be with a sense of approximation in some cases, or indeed figuratively in others.

One of the principal examples of the literary or philosophical fragment is of course in the writings of the Greek Pre-Socratic thinker Heraclitus. Heraclitus' work, as it has come down to us, is literally 'piece(s) broken off', as it survived through brief quotations in other writers' work. However, if Heraclitus' writings survive as fragments, they can also be said to survive
as fragments, and possess what seems an inherently aphoristic, compressed quality. The succession of separate, brief prose paragraphs, which link up with one another to form various possible combinations of meaning, at the same time can never be a continuous, systematic, closed piece of writing and thinking. While we will never know how closely this might approach Heraclitus' intentions as a writer and thinker, it is a basic way of proceeding that has been intentionally cultivated by others. Avoiding the continuous, the systematic and the closed, while exploring the power of compressed language and a range of possibilities of meaning... this is an approach characteristic of many later writers (and of course it would be wrong to ascribe to most of them any 'Heraclitean' allegiance or direct influence).

To come back to Dresher: she states, 'One quality of fragmentary writing is the lack of a traditional beginning or end. Instead, the two are merged into a brief and concentrated middle' (p. xii). However, it's necessary to distinguish between:
brevity, in the form of a very short instance of writing, such as the aphorism, which is relatively complete in itself but may be combined with other such instances, in a succession;
looser or more expansive writing, but which is simply not extended into a longer piece of writing, such as we find in many journals or diaries, though sometimes combined with briefer, more compressed entries;
writing which again is not necessarily all that
brief or at all compressed, but which is elliptical in as much as it does not make explicit connections between its constituent (fairly short) sections (Arenella's essay is an example of this).
There are examples of all three in this book, and they highlight the drawbacks as well as the strengths of fragmentary writing.... (The book also neglects to instance another form of the fragmentary (which I will return to at the end of this review).)

A couple of examples from In Pieces
will give a better idea of how different these fragments can be:

     They broke the drums and hid them in their manuscripts.
          (Yannis Ritsos, translated by Paul Merchant; p. 142)

     June 1. I was “here” in form only, “here” as in a sketch the architect
     makes: the spaces throb with emptinesses to be or not to be filled.
     Just now I am thinking of the ghosts crowding about our lives, parents
     dead, siblings long absent quarrelling with us still inside the vestibule.
           (Audrey Borenstein; p. 77)

These are good examples of (a.) and (b.) (c.) is harder to illustrate, without providing a more lengthy quotation), though it should be said that Ritsos' 'monochords' don't always represent him at his best, and that some of the journal entries in this collection are much longer than the one I've quoted by Audrey Borenstein.

The drawbacks in working with fragmentary writing are largely to do with the inherent dangers of any comparatively brief 'statement': it may either try to do too much and, failing, fall into pretentiousness; or it may try to do too little, and fall into triviality. (Regarding the first: if meaning tends variously to involve both the revealed and the hidden, fragmentary writing, like poetry, calls for an especially intensified relation between these two qualities - and where this is lacking, the writing misfires.) There are far too many examples of both these tendencies in the present collection. Both of the above examples, however, successfully work within the limitations of the fragment, to the extent that one may not feel that there are 'limitations' at all.

Not only this: in Ritsos' work, and Borenstein's, the fragments resonate with each other, so that meanings radiate through or across the succession of individual fragments. If we are not dealing with an ordered composition that's marked by an Aristotelian sense of development (beginning/middle/end), we are still dealing with composition - and with a dialogue of
some kind between fragment and whole, discontinuity and continuity.

Implicitly, at least, fragmentary writing relies on a sort of delayed contiguity - on what happens when one thing is put after another, if not actually alongside another (and then another and another). If the writers in this book are by and large concerned with composing fragments, they are at least implicitly concerned with composing with fragments. (Even when writing a journal, for example, the writer is aware - to some extent at least - of that which precedes what is now being written.) Other writers have tended to involve themselves with contiguous structure by explicitly composing with fragments - putting one distinct thing directly alongside another and another and another, but not as separated entries (and, by the way, in an exploration
of meaning, not as an intended negation of meaning). (I've discussed the notion of contiguity of structure in an essay on the short story writer Guy Davenport, 'Post-modernist fiction: a discussion of Guy Davenport', in Parallax... too many years ago! (Vol. 1 no. 3, 1983.) )

Perhaps the contemporary poet, fiction writer and translator Rosmarie Waldrop can have the last say here: 'I tend to think [the fragment] is our way of apprehending anything. Our inclusive views are mosaics. And the shards catch light on the cut, the edges give off sparks.' (Ceci n'est pas Keith - ceci n'est pas Rosmarie: Autobiographies
, with Keith Waldrop, Burning Deck, 2002, p. 86.)

Or the second last, at any rate. One might grumble about the omission of a few things that could surely have been included in In Pieces
: Robert Lax's marvellous and highly singular journals, for example.... Or surely someone could have been found to do a fresh translation from the great Greek poet George Seferis' journals? As interesting as In Pieces is, it does contain many middling contributions. Drawing on writers like Seferis and Lax would certainly have improved it.

     © David Miller 2006